Turning a profit to help the planet
Micro hydro innovator GreenBug Energy stands alone in North America in repurposing ancient technology for environmentally friendly power generation, with the potential to turn thousands of small dams that have been ignored for decades into revenue-generating assets.
They say money makes the world go round.
Entrepreneur Tony Bouk thinks it can also help save the planet. And he’s putting that theory to the test with his newest venture, GreenBug Energy Inc.
GreenBug is bringing 21st-century disruption to hydropower generation by adapting ancient technology – the 2,000-year-old Archimedes screw – to generate cost-effective, reliable, green hydroelectricity from an abundance of long-idle small dams that are otherwise crumbling into ruin on streams and creeks across North America.
The concept was born of Bouk’s desire to expand his business interests to address his concern that unchecked human activity is “threatening our own existence and the continued existence of every other species on the planet.” After an experience volunteering with a non-profit environmental organization, he had become convinced that the profit motive was the missing ingredient for the scale of change he envisioned.
Following Ontario’s introduction of the Green Energy Act in 2009, Bouk and business partner Brian Weber, co-founders of Bluestreak Equipment Inc., decided to research opportunities in renewable energy.
Bouk’s father, Mike, the former CEO of Ag Energy Co-operative who now serves as president of GreenBug, advised them to look for their next idea “in their own backyard” – to find something local, something “regular people can use.”
As it turned out, just beyond Weber’s backyard in Delhi, Ont., a little stream meandered over a small irrigation pond dam belonging to the tobacco farmer next door. Bouk and Weber soon learned that while the landscape of Norfolk County appeared flat, there were hundreds of underused, nearly derelict small dams all around them – infrastructure that had been made irrelevant a century ago.
At the dawn of the 20th century, these dams provided essential power for the industry of the day – serving sawmills, flour mills, woolen mills and the like – only to be made redundant when the enormous publicly owned hydroelectric generating stations at Niagara Falls came on stream in the early 1900s.
Decades later, the dams have become a liability to the municipality, private property owner, or conservation authority responsible for them.
But where others see liability, Bouk and Weber saw opportunity, despite a host of challenges to solve.
The most obvious initial challenge was the size of the dams – their “low heads” – meaning a drop of between one and 10 feet – precluded the use of turbine technology designed for high flow sites.
More research led to the Archimedes screw – invented 2,000 years ago to pump water from one place to another – typically uphill – and most commonly used today in sewage treatment facilities. The screw is also used for power generation, mainly in Europe: water cascading down the helical ridge wrapping around the cylinder shaft provides the necessary rotational action. It has the added advantage of allowing small debris – and fish – to pass through without incident.
Bouk and Weber needed something smaller that would work for Ontario’s multitude of dams under 500kW, something that wouldn’t freeze and wouldn’t require constant intervention and maintenance to operate. So they walked out to the tiny dam in Weber’s backyard and built their first prototype, generating a half a kilowatt of power, and GreenBug was born.
To further refine and scale the concept, they turned to the University of Guelph’s School of Engineering and other university research partners, with funding from the National Research Council Canada – Industrial Research Assistance Program, and a grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada that they used to build a predictive model to determine the best screw size for optimum return on investment.
GreenBug also became an Innovation Guelph Fast Lane client and was introduced to mentor Bob Ilmonen, a mechanical engineer with expertise in machine design and product development, who works extensively in the energy sector.
At their first meeting in GreenBug’s tiny office in Delhi, Ilmonen asked the questions that led to a list of more than a dozen issues around business development. One point of discussion – tax liability – became the focus of a Fast Lane project. It was an issue that was “eating away at us,” Mike Bouk recalls. “We didn’t want to pay tax until the latest time possible.” The project involved getting advice from accounting firm RLB that will significantly reduce GreenBug’s tax bill in the short term – “huge money they can keep in their pockets and reinvest,” Ilmonen notes.
Ilmonen also urged the partners to develop multiple, independent revenue streams – fast. “I told them: revenue is your most important thing right now; you’ve just got to start making a buck. If you have to lean out a window and sell ice cream cones for revenue, that’s what you have to do.
“And that’s what they really focused on – revenue, revenue, revenue. They focused on just getting one of these things installed because it continues to generate revenue.”
That first project was at Fletcher’s Horse World near Waterford, Ontario – where property owner John Fletcher had a crumbling mill building and dam on Nanticoke Creek, which last produced electricity to run a ginseng operation many decades ago.
At Fletcher’s in 2013 GreenBug installed the first grid-connected Archimedes screw generator (ASG) in North America. Today the $65,000 project generates 7.2kW of power and saves Fletcher around $800 a month on the electricity bill for his horse sales and training arena.
While Fletcher’s GreenBug system is net metered, meaning the power the site generates is applied to reduce his electricity bill, GreenBug is also focused on opportunities created by Ontario’s Feed-in-Tariff (FIT) program for renewable energy development, which buys electricity from approved projects at fixed rates for 40 years.
The company has since established partnerships to develop several more micro hydro protects around the province, with one FIT application approved for the Delhi Quance Dam – the only FIT contract for hydropower issued in the third round of the FIT application process.
The Quance Dam FIT project, a partnership with Norfolk County, is on target for installation this year. The site of a lumber and gristmill founded in 1842, it is now a public park and includes a fish ladder at the dam, which was rebuilt in 1992. The site will retain its roots as a power source, producing 53 kW of power – nearly enough to power the local arena – while also serving as a tourist attraction, notes Mike Bouk.
GreenBug has seven FIT applications now under review, and continues to stand alone as the only company in North America using Archimedes screw technology for micro hydropower generation.
Their creativity and tenacious problem solving has been recognized with two awards to date: the 2014 Ontario Waterpower Association Innovation Award and the 2015 3M Environmental Innovation Award for innovative contributions to environmental change.
CEO Tony Bouk estimates there are thousands of dams in Canada and the U.S. that could return to profitable, environmentally friendly power generation using the GreenBug system.
“The only way to do it is to make money for people,” he says. “And we know that every time GreenBug installs a system and we and our partners make money, there is that much less carbon produced and fewer greenhouse gases.
“One way we can change the status quo right now is by taking advantage of the easy gains, the low-hanging-fruit opportunities that already exist, and with GreenBug we just happen to be doing micro hydro because the opportunity is big and we think we can do it better than it’s ever been done before.”
About Fast Lane
Fast Lane is a business acceleration program for small- and medium-sized enterprises (under 500 employees) that are facing technical, efficiency or growth challenges. Part of Innovation Guelph’s Speedway program, it is designed for companies earning revenues of $1 million or more, and provides up to $5,000 in services to help these businesses scale-up their operations. #IGFastLane
Since launching Fast Lane in October 2014, Innovation Guelph has worked with dozens of companies based in Guelph, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton and the Greater Toronto Area from a variety of sectors including: Advanced Manufacturing, Agri-Technology, Food & Beverage, Cleantech, Life Sciences as well as Digital Media and Technology.
Interested in entering the Fast Lane? Learn more about the program here or contact Innovation Guelph for more information at 519.265.4495 or firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to working with you and helping your company grow to its full potential.
— Story and photo by Stacey Curry Gunn. Stacey is a Guelph-based PR and marketing communications professional who helps businesses grow by sharing their stories. Follow her on Twitter @StaceyCurryGunn.