The Softer Side of Hydro

What I understand so far is that we are about to visit a company that develops renewable energy technology. On the way to an old navy air station in Alameda, I ask my fellow passengers, “So, what do these guys do, again?” Someone mentions wind, and I have assumed solar, but I am a bit taken aback when I enter the presentation room.

I am on a group tour at Natel Energy. The person at the front asks us to share what we are interested in. People mention energy, engineering and policy. Feeling a bit like an outsider in the room, I am telling her, “I work with water and development…” when I glance up at the slideshow presentation, which says “EcoSmartHydro™.” I do a double take, thinking “Hydro? That’s got to mean something else.” But as I stare at the screen, I continue, “… and, I guess I’m interested in hydro?”

I am surprised because the popular image of renewables is the archetypal wind farm or solar panel. I believe that hydro seems to get marginalized due to controversies surrounding its ecological and social impacts, but more on that later.


Natel project in Arizona (Source: Natel Energy)

The person at the front is Gia Schneider, CEO of Natel Energy. The company’s strategy relies on the development of cost-effective low head hydropower technology. While large dams can rise anywhere from a hundred to almost a thousand feet in height, “low head” here refers to drops of thirty feet or less. What intrigues me about the system is that instead of installing turbines directly into rivers, they retrofit them into canals, taking advantage of pre-existing water infrastructure. Natel claims that California’s irrigation canals have a hydropower potential of 255 megawatts (MW).

The question in my mind is then: “What about the context of developing countries?” Schneider mentions Chile where Natel claims they have 1,000-MW hydropower potential through existing irrigation infrastructure.

My experience has been in India where earlier this year I had visited a canal, part of the Indira Gandhi system in the Thar Desert. I happened to be at a point in the canal where the opposite of hydropower was occurring: Water was being pumped higher in order for it to flow downward. You could potentially call this hydro-consumption.

indira gandhi canal

My visit to the Indira Gandhi Canal in the Thar Desert, India (Source: C. Hyun)

Today, India still has about 84,000 MW of general economically exploitable hydropower potential, however I am not sure if this number includes potential low head hydropower within their existing water infrastructure. At present, Natel’s projects reach up to 0.5 MW in Oregon, however Schneider emphasizes the accumulative effect of low head hydropower across an entire water system.

This echoes the “soft path” strategy popularized by Amory Lovins. For Lovins, even renewables, such as solar and hydro, could veer a nation toward an unsustainable and socially discriminatory future if they are incorporated into large, complex development projects. Large hydro development (hydel) projects do end up displacing already marginalized communities while fostering energy elitism due to the operation of complex technology and centralized energy distribution.

What Natel and small hydro in general offer is somewhat simple technology used within existing infrastructure at a local level—homegrown energy or the softer side of hydropower.

This is not to say at all that this will work in India at a national scale—let alone in the utterly dry Thar Desert. However, as India negotiates huge hydro deals with Bhutan and Nepal and environmentalists blame hydel projects for “man-made disasters” in the Himalayas and as these large projects take at least 4 to 5 years if not longer for approval, these smaller local projects may in the meantime be able to light up a few unconnected villages—putting some power into local hands.