Hydropower is the world’s biggest source of renewable energy, generating about 16% of the global electricity supply. As the world strives to reach net-zero, this will be a major role. It can store huge amounts of electricity for future use and then quickly releases it when it is needed.
But despite being better for the climate, it’s becoming increasingly clear that renewable energy sources can have a negative impact on the environment. Just 37% of the world’s 246 longest rivers remain free-flowing—without any human-made dams, reservoirs, or other structures controlling how and when the water moves—according to a 2019 NatureMcGill University in Canada and the World Wildlife Fund led a team of researchers to study this topic. The hydropower industry can disrupt local communities and have an adverse impact on biodiversity, water quality, ecosystems, and the environment. According to researchers from the Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries, one in five fish that is affected by a turbine can die. It can cause severe damage to species that migrate, such as salmon, sturgeon, or eels. Their spawn might have to traverse these hazardous downstream routes to reach the sea.
Elsewhere, Siblings Gia Schneider (and Abe Schneider) are trying to reverse this trend. Natel Energy, which they founded in 2009, aims to bring hydropower to the masses in the most sustainable and responsible manner possible. The company created what they say is a fish-safe turbine, and their approach is to modernize existing hydropower plants with their turbines to allow fish to pass safely, while also building new, low-impact run-of-river projects that don’t require dams, which make them as minimally disruptive to river systems as possible.
Natel is currently operating two projects: one in Madras (Ore.) and the other in Freedom, Maine. Many more are in the pipeline.
“My brother and I deeply care that that development happens in a way that supports sustainable outcomes in rivers, because rivers are our lifeblood,” says Gia, the CEO of the Alameda, California-headquartered company.
Gia Schneider (Natel CEO) admires an American Eel. The recirculating aquaculture system Natel has in place allows for unique through-turbine fish passage testing. This will be done at Natel’s Alameda headquarters, Calif. in 2021.
It’s All About Water
Around the dawn of the 21st Century, the Schneider brothers earned engineering degrees from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Afterwards, they took different career paths—Gia worked in finance and energy, and Abe was a mechanical engineer—but they came together in 2009 to found Natel, with their late father, with the aim of creating hydropower systems that help, rather than hurt, ecosystems. It’s an obsession that is personal for them both. As children, their father was a pioneer in renewable energy technologies and taught them about climate change.
Gia grew up in Texas and recalls, as a teenager, going whitewater rafting with her dad to protest the large Canadian hydropower plant. They also enjoyed regular trips to Colorado rivers as teenagers. They noticed that the branch of the river with beaver dams was flourishing, while another branch where the dams were removed by a cattle company, wasn’t. Abe believes that the cattle companies removed dams from the river to enhance grazing. However, the dams actually created the meadows. Their future hydroplanning approach was influenced by the realization that natural dams play a critical role in the preservation of healthy habitats.
Natel was not interested in large-scale hydropower plants that can leave a negative environmental impact. Instead, they wanted turbines to allow rivers to continue their natural flow to preserve a healthy ecosystem. The company’s “restoration hydro” design philosophy, which incorporates the concept of biomimicry—learning from and emulating nature to create more sustainable designs—couples a fish-safe turbine with low-impact structures in strategic sites that use and mimic the natural landscape. Restoration hydro project structures might mimic beaver dams, natural log jams, or rock arches, and depending on the river and environment, it might be possible to install turbines without actually damming the river—which would dramatically change the landscape.
Restoration hydro’s goal is to restore ecological and watershed function damaged by hydropower. On top of this, unlike traditional hydropower projects, this design supports groundwater recharge—when water seeps through the earth, replenishing aquifers—reduces flood and drought risks, and improves water quality.
“Every hydro project is also a water project, not just an energy project,” Gia says.
Resolving The Climate Crisis and Biodiversity Crisis
In order to be less hazardous to aquatic life, Natel’s fish-safe hydropower turbines have thicker, more steeply slanted blades than normal hydropower turbines. They deflect the fish by their blunt edges, and the slope of their blades reduces the risk of direct impact. Natel states that its blade design provides a better than 99% chance of survival for fish.
Gia says that when thinking about tackling climate change, the biodiversity crisis can’t be overlooked. Researchers have searched for ways to reduce the environmental impact of hydropower plants over many years. Some use screens to stop fish entering dams. Large hydropower projects are in decline at times. These are not the only areas of renewable energy. Wind energy companies also experiment with this approach. For example, they paint one of their rotor blades black in order to make them more easily visible to birds. There is also increasing attention to the detrimental impact that solar farms have on biodiversity as land is cleared for panels.
Abe Schneider (CTO and cofounder of Natel) inspects an American eel after it has passed through the Restoration Hydro Turbine, in 2021.
“At the end of the day, we need to get megawatts, and clean megawatts, renewable megawatts, [which] are better than fossil fuel megawatts in the context of climate change,” she says. “But I do think that we have to prioritize biodiversity because when you zoom out to the big picture, we face not just a crisis of climate change as the earth as a whole, we also face a real crisis on biodiversity.”
Environmentally Friendly—And Cost Effective
Natel’s siblings were focused when they founded it. They wanted to help rivers with hydropower. At the same time, they knew that “nobody on the finance or the energy side is going to want to sacrifice efficiency or cost,” she says. “What we inserted into that equation is that we also wanted it to be fish-safe, and river-connecting, and we were like, ‘we’ll put those design criteria on par with the other constraints, and then use that to drive the engineering process.’”
Natel claims that the average cost to generate power with its turbines is between 4-8 cents/kilowatt hour and $40-80/megawatt-hour. The cost range depends on how large the turbine or plant is; bigger turbines or plants can result in savings. Compare this to hydropower plants in North America that have been built for around 8 cents per unit of power over the past decade. This is according to the International Renewable Energy Agency.
Natel’s turbine also eliminates the need for fish screens, reducing both upfront and ongoing costs for things like maintenance, and the compactness of the turbines means that civil works to build plants using Natel turbines are less complex. “It’s about as efficient as any conventional hydro turbine out there, but it’s fish-safe,” says Gia.
The siblings hope that what they’re doing can help demonstrate a more sustainable approach to renewable energy—proving that companies shouldn’t have to choose between what’s good for the environment and what works economically.
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