Meet the brothers and sisters who make hydroelectricity that protects ecosystems

Hydropower is the world’s largest source of renewable energy, generating around 16% of the world’s electricity supply. And it will continue to play a key role as the world seeks to achieve zero emissions, not least because, like a battery, it can store huge amounts of energy for later and release it quickly when a spike occurs. of request.

But although they are better for the climate, it is becoming increasingly clear that renewable energy sources can have a negative impact on the environment. According to a 2019 study, only 37% of the world’s 246 longest rivers flow freely, with no dams, reservoirs or other man-made structures controlling how and when the water moves. Nature study conducted by a group of international researchers led by McGill University and the World Wide Fund for Nature. Not only can hydroelectricity disrupt local communities, but it can also impact ecosystems, water quality and biodiversity. One in five fish, for example, that pass through a conventional turbine suffer fatal injuries, according to a team of researchers from the Leibniz Institute for Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries in Germany. This can have particularly detrimental effects on migratory species, such as salmon, sturgeon and eel, whose spawn may have to take these dangerous downstream routes to get to the sea.

However, siblings Gia and Abe Schneider try to change that. They founded the company Natel Energy in 2009 to ensure that hydroelectricity is deployed in the most sustainable way possible. The company has created what it says is a fish-safe turbine, and its approach is to retrofit existing hydroelectric plants with their turbines to allow fish to pass safely, while building new projects over time. low-impact water sources that do not require dams, making them as minimally disruptive as possible to river systems.

So far, Natel has two projects operational, in Madras, Oregon and Freedom, Maine, with several more in the pipeline; the company plans to install two more projects this year, one in Virginia and the other in Austria.

“My brother and I are deeply committed to seeing this development happen in a way that drives sustainable outcomes in rivers, because rivers are our lifeblood,” says Gia, CEO of the Alameda, Calif.-based company.

Natel co-founder and CEO Gia Schneider admires an American eel in the recirculating aquaculture system that Natel maintains to enable unique testing of passing fish through the turbine at the company’s headquarters in Alameda, California , in 2021.

Courtesy of Natel Energie

It’s all about water

The Schneider siblings both earned engineering degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the turn of the 21st century. Thereafter, they followed different professional 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 hydroelectric systems that help rather than hurt. , ecosystems. It is an obsession that is personal to them both. Their father, an inventor of renewable energy technology, taught them about climate change when they were children.

Growing up in Texas, Gia remembers going rafting with her father as a teenager to protest against a major hydroelectric project in Canada. As teenagers, the siblings also took regular vacations to fish in a Colorado river. They noticed that the arm of the river with beaver dams was thriving, while another arm where the dams had been removed by a cattle company was not. Their theory, says Abe, was that the cattle company removed the dams to improve grazing because they thought the beaver dams were drowning the grasslands, but in fact the beaver dams created them. This realization that natural dams played a crucial role in maintaining a healthy habitat inspired their future approach to hydropower planning.

Unlike large hydroelectric plants, which can have a damaging environmental footprint, Natel wanted to manufacture turbines that would allow rivers to maintain their natural flow as much as possible to protect a healthy ecosystem. The company’s “restorative hydro” design philosophy, which incorporates the concept of biomimicry – learning from and imitating nature to create more sustainable designs – combines a fish-safe turbine with low-impact structures in strategic sites that use and mimic the natural landscape. Restoration hydroelectric project structures could mimic beaver dams, natural ice jams, or rock arches, and depending on the river and the environment, it might be possible to install turbines without damming the river, which would drastically change the countryside.

In doing so, the goal of hydropower restoration is to help restore watershed and ecological function that may have been damaged, either naturally or by conventional hydropower projects. On top of that, unlike traditional hydro projects, this design supports groundwater recharge – when water seeps through the land, replenishing aquifers – reduces the risk of flooding and drought and improves the water quality.

“Every hydro project is also a water project, not just an energy project,” says Gia.

Tackling biodiversity and the climate crisis

In order to be less dangerous to aquatic life, Natel’s fish-safe hydroelectric turbines have thicker and steeper blades than normal hydroelectric turbines. The blunt edges of the blades deflect fish, while their slope reduces the likelihood of direct impact. Natel claims its unique blade design has a fish survival rate of over 99%.

Gia says that when thinking about tackling climate change, the biodiversity crisis cannot be overlooked. For years, researchers have sought to make hydropower projects less environmentally damaging, with some using screens to keep fish out of dams. And in some places, large hydro projects have fallen out of favor. Other sectors of the renewable energy industry are also experimenting in this direction: wind energy companies are trying to make wind turbines safer for birds, for example by painting one of the rotor blades black to making it more visible to birds, as there is growing focus on the negative impact solar farms can have on biodiversity when land is cleared to make way for the panels.

In a study with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Abe Schneider, co-founder and CTO of Natel, inspects an American eel in a water-filled tube after it passed safely through the Restoration Hydro Turbine (RHT), in 2021.

Courtesy of Natel Energie

“At the end of the day, we have to get megawatts, and clean megawatts, renewable megawatts, [which] are better than megawatts of fossil fuels in the context of climate change,” she says. “But I think we have to prioritize biodiversity because when you zoom in on the big picture, we’re not just facing a climate change crisis like the earth as a whole, we’re also facing a real biodiversity crisis.

Environmentally friendly and cost effective

When the siblings created Natel, they focused on how to improve hydroelectricity for rivers. At the same time, they knew that “nobody on the finance or energy side is going to want to sacrifice efficiency or cost,” she says. “What we put into that equation was that we also wanted it to be fish-safe and connected to the river, and we thought, ‘We’re going to put those design criteria on the same level as other constraints, then use them to drive the engineering process.

Natel indicates that the cost of generating electricity using its turbines is approximately 4 to 8 cents per kilowatt hour, or $40 to $80 per megawatt hour (the cost range depends on the size of the turbine or the plant; larger turbines and plants tend to result in savings). Compare that to typical large hydroelectric projects in North America where, on average, the cost of new projects built over the past decade was about 8 cents per kilowatt hour, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency.

Natel’s turbine also eliminates the need for fish screens, reducing both initial and ongoing costs for things like maintenance, and the compactness of the turbines means the civil works to build power plants using Natel turbines are less complex. “It’s about as efficient as any conventional hydroelectric turbine, but it’s safe for fish,” says Gia.

The siblings hope what they’re doing can help demonstrate a more sustainable approach to renewable energy, proving that businesses shouldn’t have to choose between what’s good for the environment and what works economically.

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Write to Amy Gunia at [email protected]