Microsoft founder Bill Gates is backing a hydropower technology that’s claimed to potentially “fundamentally change how water is leveraged as a renewable energy source”.

Breakthrough Energy Ventures, which was set up by the software billionaire, joined Schneider Electric in an $11m investment in Natel Energy, which says its Restoration Hydro Turbine (RHT) can boost output from plants while simultaneously cutting effects on fish and other environmental impacts.

The system, which is designed for smaller ‘low-head’ hydro schemes operating on rivers, offers 20% lower operating costs than conventional turbines already running. It’s also touted as safer for fish, one of the key inhibitors of such projects.

A pilot 35kW (RHT) plant is already running in Maine, supplying a restaurant and a school, and sending excess power to the grid.

Breakthrough Energy Ventures said of the Natel technology: “Hydro has long been considered a perfect source for renewable energy, if not for the high cost of capital and inherent risks to wildlife based on most designs

“Natel’s patented high-performance hydro-electric turbine cleverly addresses both issues – lowering the expense per unit and making it safe for the environment.”

The venture fund added: “Furthermore, the product can be deployed as a retrofit in existing installations or rolled out in brand new developments. This means Natel has the potential to fundamentally change how water is leveraged as a renewable energy source that blends well with other important products like wind and solar.”

Natel said the investment would be used to scale-up deployment of the RHT.