Marc Nering has extensive experience in heavy industry, business, hydropower, and carbon capture, and as if that were not enough, he also designed and built an innovative power-generating water wheel in his garage. In this interview, Mr. Nering tells us about the design and construction of his device, its potential use cases, and how his design is being used around the world.
Hydro Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Marc Nering: I have been in heavy industry since the early 1980s. I originally started as a welder and a millwright. I eventually went back to college for business and project management. I worked in power generation and pipelines, and then in 2004, I moved to British Columbia and became involved in the hydro industry. I was the plant manager for several hydro plants in the province until 2017, when I took early retirement and created my own consulting company, Nering Industries.
Hydro Leader: Please tell us about Nering Industries.
Marc Nering: I created Nering Industries as a consulting firm and have used it for a couple of different things. I use it to sell my water wheel design as well as solar products. I’ve partnered with a couple of different companies, one in Italy and one in Chile, that use parts of my hydro design for some of their processes.
Hydro Leader: How did you come up with the idea for the water wheel? What problem were you trying to solve, or what niche were you trying to fill with it?
Marc Nering: I live on a farm on a fast-flowing river in British Columbia, the Cheakamus River. Looking at the river on a daily basis, I often thought that its untapped power could be used to power my house. In fact, the millwright trade actually started off creating mills along rivers—grinding mills for flour and powering other equipment. I came across a book from the early 1800s that was full of millwrights’ and millers’ guides. Basically, it was a how-to book about how a millwright would look at the lay of the land around a river and decide where to build a water-powered mill. That piqued my interest, and I gave it some thought. Working in the hydro industry gave me quite a bit of knowledge and access to other industry experts, so I decided to go ahead and try to build my own water wheel. Instead of using it to grind flour, I eventually decided to generate electricity. My original purpose was to use it as an irrigation spiral pump. However, I found some information on permanent magnet generators that worked at about 50 rotations per minute—something that could be used to generate electricity. A good colleague of mine helped me design the wheel and work out all the problems in a computer-assisted design program. After we came up with the plan, I built it almost entirely myself. It took several years to build, and the permitting process took another couple of years. Nobody else has really ever done anything like this, especially in British Columbia. I had to do environmental assessments and studies to make sure I wouldn’t affect fish or damage the environment.
Hydro Leader: What advantages does a water wheel have over other hydropower devices?
Marc Nering: You don’t need to dam a river to use it, since you’re using the water velocity of the river to turn the wheel. Obviously, you need a fast-flowing river. It’s simple to build. Little infrastructure is required; you basically only need to build a solid foundation on a riverbank. I’ve had quite a bit of interest from third-world countries and from people who do not have much access to sophisticated machining equipment. I built most of it in my garage, so it’s not too hard for a skilled tradesperson to build.
Hydro Leader: What materials did you use to build it?
Marc Nering: I used aluminum for the wheel itself; the other components are carbon steel. The foundation is concrete. Aluminum is a little tricky to weld if you’ve never done it before. Other materials can be used—I originally was going to use corten steel, but I switched to aluminum to save weight.
Hydro Leader: How much power can your wheel generate?
Marc Nering: That depends on the velocity of the river, how much blade area you have, and that sort of thing, so it’s scalable. The most I’ve made is about 3 kilowatts. My biggest issue is that it makes so much torque that I get a lot of belt slippage, especially when everything is wet. I could, and eventually will, make modifications to eliminate that problem, such as using a chain drive, a gearbox, or a direct drive generator.
Hydro Leader: You currently use it to power your house, correct?
Marc Nering: I use it to power my house, and I’ve got a grid-tied converter, so any extra power I make I export to the grid.
Hydro Leader: How fast flowing does a river need to be for the water wheel to be used in it?
Marc Nering: Ten feet or 3 meters per second, at minimum.
Hydro Leader: Since building your wheel and using it for a few years, have you made any changes in its design or operations?
Marc Nering: I’ve had to make a couple of changes. What was probably the biggest change originally started with the mechanical roller bearings. I went through two sets of them. The issue was water ingress, despite the fact that I was using the highest-quality SKF bearings and the best seals I could find. That caused the bearings to rapidly deteriorate: They only lasted three-quarters of a year. I did some online research and looked back in time at what was done in the past. I learned that in the olden days, they used wooden bearings. I contacted a U.S. company called Lignum Vitae North America that sells lignum vitae wood bearings and put them on my water wheel about 2 years ago. It’s been great.
Operating the wheel takes some attention. I don’t have an automatic method of adjusting the elevation, so depending on river flow changes from rain or snow melt, I have to adjust the elevation of the wheel in the water.
Hydro Leader: Would you tell us about the environmental effects of the water wheel and any mitigation steps that you had to take?
Marc Nering: The permitting was difficult. I had to satisfy municipal, provincial, and federal agencies as well as First Nations, kayakers, and others. The Province of British Columbia and the British Columbia Ministry of Environment looked at it as if it were a dam-based hydro plant and asked how much water I was retaining and other questions like that. I tried to explain to them that this thing sits on the side of the river and generates power without holding back any water or affecting fish. Convincing the regulators was the hardest part. I still had to do several environmental studies. Luckily, I have some colleagues in the industry who helped me do the environmental studies at a reasonable cost. There was a concern about salmon traveling downstream at night, which is when they typically migrate downstream to avoid predation, and getting injured in the wheel, in a manner similar to what occurs with a standard hydro dam, where there are large pressure changes that can affect fish as they move through a Francis-type impellor. I also had to put a bond down with the government so that whenever I decide to abandon this project, there is enough money to disassemble everything and remove it. That was a huge part of the total cost of the project.
Hydro Leader: Do you have any plans to commercialize the water wheel, to sell it, or to install other wheels anywhere?
Marc Nering: I originally had no plans to commercialize it. It was just something I wanted to do. I like looking at it every day. My son convinced me to put it on YouTube, and I’ve gotten millions of views. I’ve received a lot of interest from people, mostly from do-it-yourself types who want to build something similar. I had some commercial people contact me. I signed an agreement with a company in Italy that wants to use parts of my design, and a company in Chile is using the water wheel as part of its project to collect plastic in rivers.
Using a water wheel like this is never going to be cheaper than grid power. It only makes sense for remote communities, places without grid power, and places that rely on diesel generation. I’ve had some interest from third-world countries and people in areas that aren’t serviced by the grid and rely on solar or wind, which are intermittent. Those are the type of people who would be interested in my product, and I’d be willing to share the design with them.
Hydro Leader: So are you licensing the design to these companies?
Marc Nering: Yes, I’m sharing the design. I have blueprints of everything. There are certain design elements that are interesting to other people who are making similar machines, such as the ability to rotate the wheel in and out of the water and my method for raising and lowering the wheel using hydraulics. I’ve solved a few problems that some people have scratched their heads over.
Hydro Leader: It sounds like you don’t have current plans to actively market your water wheel around the world, correct?
Marc Nering: That’s correct. Even though I took an early retirement, I’m now working as a manager for a carbon-capture company. I work long hours, and when I get home, I don’t want to spend a lot of time promoting my products. I also live on a farm, so I have enough work to do here.
Hydro Leader: How should those who are interested in your water wheel get in touch with you?
Marc Nering: They can e-mail me, and I’m willing to share my design and certain concepts if anybody’s interested. I’ve been approached to manufacture these water wheels, but it doesn’t make financial sense to do that, considering the costs of shipping. I’ve made some money by sharing the design with other people. If someone wants to build something similar but needs some guidance, not only would I share the design, but I’d give them some tips about things that I’ve learned over the years.