The technology is called Very Low Head . . . and its breakthrough, seemingly, has very high potential.
In December 2015, the Wasdell Falls Hydro Power Project—Enbridge’s first involvement in hydroelectric power—began operations on the Severn River near Washago, ON, about two hours north of Toronto.
The Wasdell Falls project, with three turbines generating a total of 1.6 megawatts (MW) of renewable energy, was the first in North America to introduce Very Low Head (VLH) turbine technology—with “head” referring to the force exerted by the water, influenced by its vertical drop.
And after its first Canadian winter, VLH technology appears ready to make a dramatic entrance into the North American green energy scene.
“VLH turbines could potentially be used in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of sites across North America,” notes Glenn Hepinstall, project manager at Wasdell Falls. “Because of the technology, you’re able to make power in a situation where traditional turbines can’t. We’re talking about smaller rivers, lower flows, and lower drops—five meters or less.”
VLH technology, currently in operation or in development at more than 50 sites in Europe, differs from traditional hydroelectric technology in three key ways:
Logistically speaking, VLH turbines are also designed specifically for installation into existing structures, such as dams and bypass channels—a massive step forward in minimizing cost, timeline for regulatory approval and construction, and environmental impact.
The critical test, carried out at Wasdell Falls this past winter, was the VLH technology’s adaptation to the cold Canadian climate—ice cover, ice movement, seasonal flows.
“I would call this winter a success, for sure. As a demonstration site, we had our issues, but we worked through them all and things went very well,” says Hepinstall, who’s worked his entire career in water control on Ontario’s Trent-Severn Waterway.
“What’s going on here is very impressive. The technology—being able to control three turbines, regulate two automated gates on the dam, and adjust the river elevation to change the flow—is pretty awesome.”
It’s estimated that VLH turbine technology could create more than 2,000 MW of clean, reliable energy in North America.
Wasdell Falls, and other potential VLH hydro projects, are an important component of Enbridge’s energy sustainability strategy. We’ve invested nearly $5 billion in renewable energy, including 15 North American onshore wind projects, an offshore wind facility in the English Channel, four solar farms, a geothermal project and five waste-heat recovery facilities.
“Hydroelectricity is one of the ultimate forms of renewable energy. As part of Enbridge’s strategic objective to pursue new platforms such as renewables for growth and diversification, hydro power is an energy source that we’re looking to develop a significant footprint in,” says Lino Luison, vice president of Enbridge’s Green Power, Transmission and Emerging Technology division.
“Wasdell Falls provides us exposure into this market, and we’ll continue to look for opportunities to grow our expertise in this area.”
Enbridge owns 50 percent of the Wasdell Falls project, with the remaining interest in the hands of a private investor group. The project is backed by a 40-year power purchase agreement, delivering energy through the Washago tie line.