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Above: Completed Intake Structure. Water from the irrigation canal is divided in two as it approaches the plant. The existing drop structure (foreground) is used to bypass extra flow, and the newly-constructed plant intake structure (background) routes water into the penstock and on to the hydroEngine. Image courtesy of Natel Energy.

The Schneider family in California is shaping the next generation of hydropower in the United States, and they are doing so by carrying on a family legacy of curiosity and tinkering. Gia Schneider, the CEO of Natel Energy, along with her brother, Abe, are pathfinders for clean energy. They have led the charge to commercialize a new small hydropower technology, continuing the legacy of their father Daniel, who passed away before seeing one his life’s works become a reality.

Installed in Madras, Oregon, electricity being produced by their father’s Schneider Linear hydroEngine is now being purchased by Apple Inc. to lower its carbon footprint and help power one of its data centers. This first-of-its-kind project makes use of an existing, previously unpowered irrigation canal to generate reliable, renewable energy.

Daniel Schneider was a medical doctor who served as the Commissioner of Health for Micronesia in the 1960s. Very quickly he saw that clean energy was critical for overall public health and environmental protection and that small, sustainable hydropower was a key component to addressing both issues. With no formal engineering training, Dr. Schneider began tinkering with a number of hydropower technologies that ultimately led him to design the Schneider Linear hydroEngine, a first-of-its-kind hydropower turbine designed to operate in a low-head, low-flow environment—where the vertical change in elevation from the reservoir to the downstream level is 60 feet or less, and where less water is required compared with traditional machines. He even got a small grant from the newly formed U.S. Department of Energy in the late 1970s.

The Schneider Linear hydroEngine was successfully developed and deployed in three pilot projects, but the world wasn’t quite ready for the technology yet, so he folded up his efforts in the early 80s. His two children, Gia and Abe, grew up with their father’s love of tinkering and passion for working to prevent climate change. In 1998, they submitted a business plan in the MIT $100K Business Plan Contest and formally restarted the technology by forming Natel Energy in 2005.

Natel Energy has received four Energy Department financial assistance awards since 2009: Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase I & Phase II awards and two Water Power Program funding opportunity awards.  All of these have contributed to the successful commercialization of this technology.

Representative of the Energy Department’s HydroNEXT Initiative, which aims to improve the development of next-generation small hydropower technologies, Natel Energy is helping change the perception of hydropower as coming mainly from large dams. The Schneider Linear hydroEngine has progressed from an idea to commercialization, and is now tapping the vast opportunities that remain for small hydropower technologies to contribute to the nation’s renewable energy mix.

The Energy Department's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy accelerates development and deployment of energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies and market-based solutions that strengthen U.S. energy security, environmental quality, and economic vitality. Learn more about the Water Power Program’s research and development efforts to advance hydropower. To learn more about how hydropower captures energy from flowing water, watch this Energy 101 video.