Hydroelectric power specialist Bourne Energy has developed a human-portable hydroelectric generator which can create clean, quiet power from any stream deeper than four feet. The "Backpack Power Plant", which joins the company's Riverstar, Oceanstar and Tidalstar designs, is aimed at bringing cheap, practical energy technology to remote areas.

Bourne Energy has developed two versions of the BPP; BPP-1 is aimed at civilians, while BPP-2 is designed for the military and was recently unveiled at the Cleantech Forum in San Francisco. Both measure three feet in length and weigh less than 30 pounds, though the military version is 10% lighter. Both are self-contained with their own integrated power, control, cooling and sensor systems. They collapse into a backpack-sized module comprising three parts; the generator, hub and folded stored blades.

While the military BPP-2 unit produces 20% more power (600W) of high quality continuous power depending on river current, the civilian BPP-1 unit produces approximately 500 W/unit but was not designed to work with a variety of flow rates and produces optimum energy in streams moving at 2.3 meters per second. Both can be arranged singularly or in arrays of 20-30 kW. The BPP-2 however operates silently with no heat or exhaust emissions, is 40% less visible during operation and can also be bottom-mounted to ensure total invisibility if required.

The system is designed to be quickly installed via Bourne Energy's novel submerged horizontal high tension mooring system: two trenches are dug on opposite sides of a river and a lightweight anchor inserted into each bank. A synthetic rope is run between the anchors and the BPP unit. Bourne Energy CEO Chris Catlin said his company designed the system to work like the high-tension mooring systems that hold up floating oil rigs.

Bourne Energy of Malibu California is currently looking for US$4 million in venture capital to take the BPP mini hydro-electric system from prototype to production. The company is aware that the US$3000 price tag for the civilian version precludes all but the most gadget-hungry buyers, but hope to find interested customers in developing nations and the military as they believe their hydroelectric products offer significant advantages over off-grid solar-power which may be quiet, but produce only a fraction of the power.

To illustrate, one commercially available foldable solar panel measures about 12 square feet and produces 62 watts of peak power. Sixty square feet of panels would be needed to get the same peak power as the BPP-2, and the panels would only generate electricity while the sun was shining. This is also true of other renewable energy sources such as wind, which is weather dependent. Hydro-electric power does not suffer from this drawback, and an ultra-portable module will no doubt have many practical applications around the world.

“This can bring a cheap, highly portable energy technology to remote areas and remote villages,” said Catlin.