A rendering illustrates kW River's hydroelectric turbines.

Chasing waterfalls: Ohio startup’s ‘aesthetically invisible’ design aims to modernize hydropower

For consumer and commercial products, especially in tech, what’s new is sexy. 

Hydroelectric power is a decades-old clean energy technology and usually doesn’t garner the same hype as newer cleantech. In fact, this summer the International Energy Agency released a report in which Executive Director Fatih Birol said hydropower plays a crucial role in the clean energy transition, yet it is the “forgotten giant of clean electricity, and it needs to be put squarely back on the energy and climate agenda if countries are serious about meeting their net zero goals.” 

Cincinnati, Ohio, hydroelectric tech startup kW River’s different take on water power could help meet those goals while bringing sexy back to the industry.

The technology

kW River developed a prototype for its cross-flow turbines that capture energy from moving water as it turns the blades. CEO Paul Kling explained that his company’s technologies are unique because they are “aesthetically invisible” due to being completely underwater instead of attached to an above-water portion of a dam. The system is installed at the base of a dam on the downstream side and doesn’t inhibit water flow. 

They plan to manufacture the technologies from an “environmentally benign” composite. “Even the bearings that our turbines will sit on are made of a wood material,” Kling said. In the future, they intend to 3D print the devices from the composite material, which will keep costs down, Kling said.

There is a “very, very big distinction between what we’re doing and everybody else in the market today who is talking about putting anything in a river to produce power,” Kling said. This design will “span the river from edge to edge so we are able to capture every bit of the water flowing over the dam. Everyone else has a device that only captures part of the flow or the device needs to be put in a channel or requires heavy and extensive amounts of civil engineering to reconfigure the dam.”

A diagram illustrates kW River's hydroelectric turbines.
A diagram illustrates kW River’s hydroelectric turbines. Credit: kW River / Courtesy

The system requires hydraulic pumps that are powered by the turning turbines to be installed in a waterway. Other hydroelectric technologies involve generators instead of hydraulic pumps, Kling said, but the pumps allow for a better turndown ratio, or minimum vs. maximum flow capacity. “That means other devices would be able to produce power far less often at low-river flows than we can with our device,” Kling said.

Pipes connect the in-water portion of the system to equipment on the shore. All of the equipment that needs ongoing maintenance is on the shore and very rarely would require someone to get into the water to perform maintenance. In that case, the equipment that needs maintenance can be valved off so the other sections continue operating and power continues to flow.


Retired U.S. Air Force officer Fred Williams invented the low-level dam technology in Ohio and received his initial patent for it in 1999. He co-founded kW River with Kling, a retired Duke Energy employee, in 2013. 

My role was to take that invention and commercialize it — make it commercially viable,” Kling said. “I developed partnerships with a lot of large corporations … and we were able to put together a full-scale, commercially viable version of what was invented.”

What’s next

kW River is working to get approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to mount their equipment on the Point Marion Lock and Dam in Pennsylvania. The business is seeking funding to complete a study and submit it to the Army Corps of Engineers, for which they are partnering with Stantec, Kling said.

“That takes a bit of money and effort and we’re currently trying to get the funding to get that study done,” he said.

kW River also applied for a grant from the state of Iowa to install the technology on the Iowa River; that would also require approval from the Army Corps of Engineers. kW River’s innovation also has received interest from businesses including hydroelectric energy company HydroLand, Kling said, and it will continue to seek similar partners as it raises money for the corp’s studies.

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