Can Natel Help Reverse Climate Change?
The founders of the Alameda hydroelectric power company think its turbines and hydro restoration technology are aligned for big results.
Gia Schneider thinks Natel’s future is bright.
Photo by Lance Yamamoto
For Natel Energy’s Gia Schneider, small-scale hydroelectric power is a green way to help reduce the human carbon footprint and avoid climate disaster. Schneider and her brother, Abe, are the driving forces behind the Alameda Point company that wants the world to rethink how to power its future with water instead of fossil fuel.
Natel envisions hydroelectric power occurring in a new, more sustainable, distributed way that harnesses water power on a much smaller scale from existing rivers, water district irrigation canals, and small dams retrofitted with hydroelectric turbines.
Natel and Schneider’s answer to tap that power is the hydroEngine, the company’s patented hydroelectric turbine developed and designed for high performance at low heads — or vertical drops in water — of between 10 and 60 feet. Single-unit power-generating capacities range from 25 kW to 1000 kW, so thousands would be needed to produce the same amount of electricity generated by, say, the 726-foot-high Hoover Dam. But Schneider said hydroEngines distributed across the western United States would be less imposing and fit better into their environments. Another part of the company’s business is Restoration Hydro, which uses low-head, strategically sited structures for restoring watershed and ecological function that mimic the natural environment with small dams and rounded hydro turbine blades that also allow safe fish passage.
Gia Schneider, co-founder and CEO of Natel, is a chemical engineer, and Abe Schneider is a mechanical engineer and the company’s chief technology officer. Both have degrees from MIT, and they are optimistic about their company’s prospects and have been working on their mission many years in advance of Natel.
As kids, the sister and brother fished two forks of the headwaters of the Rio Grande watershed in Colorado and noticed the fork managed by the Bureau of Land Management — which was heavily grazed and bereft of beaver dams — was less fruitful than the other fork, a wilderness area full of beaver dams. “The fishing was far better in the fork that had lots of beaver dams,” Gia Schneider said. As teens, they got a grant to study macroinvertebrate population density in the forks, discovering the population was much higher in the unmanaged one. “It was pretty formative for what we’re doing today, which is that if we build structures that fit more with the way which we find water, then that opens up a whole possibility to design solutions that better fits the landscape,” Gia Schneider said.
On a Friday in September, Schneider sat in her office talking hydropower. Ideas, issues, perspective, and experience flowed from her mind like a waterfall. As the company’s longtime CEO and its public face, she has learned turbine design, water policy, state and federal regulations, the energy industry, venture capital, management, grant writing, and pitching investors, not to mention testifying at Department of Energy and Congressional hearings, public speaking, and starring in promotional videos.
Born in Justin, Texas, Schneider and her brother grew up on a small farm and lived in a log cabin built by their father — a physician, public health practitioner, and conservationist with a passion for public health, energy, and the environment. “He became very motivated in understanding how we actually can produce energy in a way that doesn’t involve fossil fuels and also in a way that fits into our environment as much as it possibly can. He got interested in hydro in a social issue perspective, because he saw some of the fairly negative impacts that large commercial hydro had on certain indigenous populations in Micronesia, and so that motivated him to think about ways in which we can do hydro differently; good for communities as well as for watersheds,” she said.
In 1998, Schneider and her brother wrote a business plan at MIT that outlined what would later become Natel, the name condensed from “natural” and “electric.”
“It was grounded in the same concepts of what we’re doing today,” Schneider said.
After she graduated from MIT, she immersed herself in understanding the energy industry. She worked for the strategy group at Accenture, then Constellation, an energy company in Baltimore, and later at the commodities desk and, later, the carbon desk at Credit Suisse. It all came crashing down with the 2008 economic collapse.
But Schneider, her brother, and father had been brainstorming regularly for years prior about starting the company. In 2007, Abe had moved to the Bay Area with his girlfriend and worked at high altitude wind energy startup Makani Power at Alameda Point, run by another MIT graduate, Saul Griffith. When they launched Natel in 2009, Makani provided the office space. “Makani Power helped incubate us,” Gia Schneider said.
They secured $375,000 in seed money, a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy grant, and they were off. At the beginning, Natel was the two siblings and their dad; today there are 40 employees.
But things went slowly. The Schneiders’ dad helped them install their first pilot hydroEngine in 2010 in Arizona, but product development stretched out until 2016, the company’s growth fueled only by grants and slowed by a lack of large capital investment. All that changed when Schneider used her Credit Suisse and energy industry connections to raise, according to Crunchbase.com, $12.2 million in 2017 — investments she said she can’t discuss.
Natel has made great strides in the last four years, installing a 250 kW hydroEngine near Bend, Ore., and a 30 kW hydroEngine in Freedom Falls, Maine. Another project breaks ground in California soon. There are three candidate projects under consideration, and another five projects are slated to open in 2020.
The Schneiders believe there is plenty of untapped water-power potential in the western United States, where Natel is looking for sites close to centers of population that won’t require big transmission lines or major environmental disruption. “It means you can bring the generation source closer to where people are going to use it,” said Gia Schneider, noting that Natel is most interested in areas with 3 to 20 meters of head.
Another potential Natel hydropower market is Myanmar. The company’s first project is a non-power dam near the commercial capital of Yangon, expected to generate about 60 megawatts of renewable hydropower over a five-year period — the equivalent of taking 170,000 cars off the road — once it’s installed by 2020. That project earned Natel a 2018 Keeling Curve Prize of $25,000, which Natel will use to map, promote, and lay the foundation for installing hydropower throughout Myanmar. “Their electricity demand is growing in double digits year-on-year. They have a 100 gigawatt hydro potential,” Schneider said, adding that many rivers feeding Asia pass through Myanmar.
“They have a natural resource between solar and hydro that could,” she said, “allow them to build an industrial economy, consuming a reasonable amount of energy, almost entirely on a renewable grid, if not entirely renewable grid, if they develop it well, and not build lots of coal and gas and not build lots of big hydro.”
Schneider views climate change and the forecast of less expected rainfall in the West as an opportunity rather than an obstacle to hydropower. “What’s interesting is when you dig into the climate models themselves, a lot of it isn’t around a one-way trend to drier [weather], but a very strong shift to a lot more variability, a lot less snow, and so then that has huge implications for our water infrastructure. To use an extreme example, if I get no more snow and all the precipitation comes as rain, we do not have infrastructure to handle it. We rely on reservoirs, and the reservoirs give us timed release in a pattern that we like to manage,” she said, making the case that restoration hydro uses a more distributive system with its components similar to those beaver dams of her youth, slowing down run off and giving water more time to percolate in the ground.
Natel started a separate side venture in 2017, Upstream, a water intelligence software platform for restoration hydro that can pinpoint water flow anywhere using Big Data without doing costly flow surveys and provide Natel a separate revenue stream from sales to other companies. “You can just click on a streamline and algorithmically find the amount of flow at the site, in many cases going back years,” said Abe Schneider. It may be the final piece in the puzzle that makes the company successful beyond what the sister and brother co-founders and their dad could’ve imagined as a three-person family startup.
The Schneiders’ father died in 2011, but the green outlook he instilled in his children’s view of the world may be about to take flight after a 20-year gestation as a hydropower energy company that can help reverse climate change and save the world.
“I think he’d be really excited about where we’ve come, especially now that Gia has steered the company to a position where we can make a broader impact on watershed and climate sustainability, beyond simply turbine manufacturing,” said Abe Schneider. “We are far from the early days of breathless excitement, but sometimes I can still get that way. We are not strangers to setbacks. We’re in it for the long haul. We have a really great chance to make something big from this.”
“I think dad would be both excited and hungry — excited by our progress, and inpatient to do more,” said Gia Schneider.