January 31, 2023
With this conversation, we’ll be working to understand hydropower: its potential, its historic challenges and limitations, and a path forward for wielding this resource efficiently and restoratively.
Commissioned their first turbine in European waters for Austrian Utility, Energie Steiermark (Natel's third fully-installed project to date)
Expansion into Africa with a contract to deliver four 1.9 meter fish-safe RHTs to MyHydro for the first of 33 potential projects in the Democratic Republic of Congo
Publication of study results outlining 100% survival of American eels passing through the RHT in Transactions of the American Fisheries Society
[00:00:00] Gia Schneider:
The challenge we face to make this transition to a zero carbon grid is quite substantial.
The International Energy Agency in a report earlier this year called out that we need to double the annual capacity additions of hydropower along with everything else we need to do on wind and solar and batteries, et cetera, in order to meet Paris climate objectives.
In hydro, we have this case where, because it's been around for a long time, we've got about 1.3 terawatts of installed operating assets today. So we have a large installed base, but that installed base is over several decades old. And in addition that it was then built at a time when the environmental requirements, or the environmental objectives and our understanding of the impact of these projects on rivers and river systems, was quite different than today.
As we go forward, we need to upgrade those existing older assets to meet modern environmental requirements. And then the other part is that we actually have quite a bit of additional resource. We can do about 10 times what we currently have installed today with appropriate technology that helps unlock that new hydro resource in a way that keeps rivers connected, or even in some cases may help improve river function.
And that's what we're focused on. So how do we upgrade the old stuff to be productive and part of the energy transition? And then how do we unlock new stuff?
[00:01:29] Cory Ames:
Cory Ames here, host of the Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation Podcast, where we explore the who, what, why, and how of building a better world. It's here that we believe by better understanding the world we live in, the more we'll feel compelled to care for it.
In this conversation, we'll explore hydropower. Its potential, its historic challenges, and a path forward for wielding this resource more restoratively and efficiently. The thing is hydropower has massive potential. It's both the oldest and largest source of renewable energy within the US, and more broadly the world.
The first US hydroelectric power plant built to sell power was opened back in 1882. As of 2021, hydropower accounts for almost a third of total renewable electricity generation within the US and just over 6% of all electricity generation, non-renewable included.
But of course, hydro has had its shortcomings. Historic projects such as the Hoover, Grand Cooley dams, or many others internationally, have caused massive disruptions with forced relocations, devastated fish populations, and they've altered many river ecosystems forever.
Thankfully, there are folks like Gia Schneider, the CEO of Natel Energy, who seem uniquely predestined to work on challenges such as this. Although, as you might perceive from Gia's humility, she might not agree. Nonetheless, Gia and her team at Natel are hard at work answering the question, "how do we take what's good about hydropower, scale it and expand it, and then innovate out of and leave behind the bad?"
In this episode to come we'll talk water and energy, restoration hydro, and how you can find the problems you were born to solve. We'll hear first from Gia as to why the affliction with climate change, renewable energy, and decarbonization has long been something of a family affair, making this work for her, seem something like destiny.
[00:03:37] Gia Schneider:
So, my brother and I, my family, we were in North Texas, and from a very early age, my father was basically very interested in climate change, renewable energy, et cetera. So in the eighties, this was a topic of conversation at the dinner table for my brother and I, as we were growing up. There was kind of a first energy crisis, which folks may or may not be familiar with in the 1970s, and that was really what sparked my father's initial interest in, thinking about "can we shift away from fossil fuels," and "how do we get a lot more of our energy supply from various renewable resources?"
And as he dug through that, he ended up focusing in hydro as a really interesting area and that then helped spark a lot of what my brother and I are focused on as well.
[00:04:23] Cory Ames:
The 1970s birthed a couple of international energy crises that caused the price of oil to soar and American citizens to panic. First, there was the Yom Kippur War of 1973, which was an armed conflict between Israel, supported by the United States and a collection of Arab states, mainly Egypt and Syria, which were supported by the Soviet Union.
Saudi Arabia, the leader of the organization of Arab petroleum exporting countries, announced an embargo, ceasing all imports to countries that were supporting Israel - markedly, the US. This brought the price of oil from $2.90 a barrel up to $11.65 a barrel at the peak of the crisis. Cars were lined up for blocks at gas stations that were emptied of gas as soon as they were supplied of it.
The embargo was finally lifted, although higher prices remained. Later, there was the 1979 Iranian revolution, where a movement to overthrow the existing Iranian monarchy was successful, and this temporarily shut down all Iranian oil exports. This event was said to have caused more panic than true disruption to the global oil supply, as other members of OPEC offset the decline.
Prices of oil however continued to rise, and once again, Americans lined up at the gas pumps like they did in the wake of 1973's events. And even still, while actual disruptions were minimal. President Jimmy Carter told Americans in his crisis of confidence, speech: "This intolerable dependence on foreign oil threatens our economic independence and the various security of our nation. The energy crisis is real. It is worldwide. It is a clear and present danger to our nation."
[00:06:22] Cory Ames:
What became clear was that these crises weren't an issue of supply of oil, but who controlled the supply? President Carter called for legislation to create the country's first solar bank that would ultimately supply 20% of the country's energy from solar power by the year 2000.
He asked to divert part of the billions that the US spent on importing oil from foreign countries on building our own renewable energy infrastructure. He explained that the pathway to greater freedom and energy independence for all Americans came through conservation.
Obviously, Carter's pleas weren't heeded. Much of the same conversation is happening today and 20 plus years after Carter's desired stated goal, only 3% of the country's power is generated from solar. So while this didn't end up charting a clear course to a federal renewable energy policy, Carter ended up losing in a landslide to Reagan soon after that speech, it seems that this may have spurred some of the most widespread conversation about conservation and alternative energy in America's history.
It seems for Gia that her father's interest aligned with the camp who wanted to decrease our dependence on the global oil market by pursuing cleaner, renewable domestic energy supply.
[00:07:44] Gia Schneider:
My brother's an avid fisherman. We both love spending time outdoors and rivers and water are an important part of what we do outdoors. So, he's an avid fisherman, we both kite surf and surf, and so we're on the water a lot, as much as we can.
Growing up every year for probably about 10 or 15 years until we went to college, we would go to Colorado for this couple-week camping trip most summers and to go fly fishing. And the place that we went, the watershed, basically, had one branch of the river was wilderness and left wild, and the other branch was managed by the Bureau of Land Management for cattle grazing.
And the ranchers, for whatever reason, they would pull out all the beaver dams in the managed section. But the wilderness section was full of beaver dams. And one of the things that my brother and I realized was that the fishing was a lot better in the places that had beaver dams.
And so this was another early experience where we were kind of exposed to how different features within rivers can have a big impact, basically, on river health and river function and biodiversity.
And so, long story short, we ended up both going to MIT and getting engineering degrees, but kind of carried through this, like, longstanding interest in doing something in climate, natural place for us to focus was hydro, and that led directly to what we're collaborating on.
[00:09:14] Cory Ames:
I swear, I won't dwell on the personal story too long here, but I just have to bring up, because I saw in one presentation you gave or maybe a speaking panel, there's like a photo of you and your brother maybe as teenagers doing some sort of like, I think ecosystem health test. And I was imagining, I was curious of like, were you and your brother like, "uh dad, we don't want to go do this," or was it something where you're like very on-board for it?
I was just wondering if that was the experience growing up, where you're like, oh, you know, as we do with our parents when we're teenagers, versus like, it's something that y'all were quite bought into.
[00:09:49] Gia Schneider:
No, I mean, my brother was the lead on that. We basically applied to the state of Texas department of Natural Resources for our grant, which funded that summer work. And so that was something that I would say my brother was really the lead on that, I was more of the research assistant for that particular project.
And it sparked, actually, out of this observation, that the fishing was so much better in the branch of this watershed that had beaver dams. My dad definitely nudged it along in the sense that he was like, "well, why do you think that might be the case? And how might you characterize this?"
And so then that led my brother to put together this research proposal to go and sample one of the ways to help understand biodiversity within certain river systems is to basically go and collect bugs and larvae. There's three, kind of, families, of these bugs that if you have good representation from all of them, you have a very biodiverse system. And if you don't, you don't.
And so that's what we were doing that picture. He won this grant, so we were able to get some equipment to go and, like, capture a bunch of bugs in these two different branches of this particular river. And then after that trip, we got home, we had all these sample jars and then had to go and like painstakingly classify all the bugs, basically.
And the ultimate conclusion was that the segment that had beaver dams had, I forget the exact numbers, but it's very, very clear the biodiversity wasn't even comparable between the two streams.
[00:11:34] Cory Ames:
It seems like a pretty good summer gig for a teenager. Growing up landlocked in north Texas, Gia and her brother came to love spending time in, on, or around water. And clearly as we can see from some of her summer jobs, like that research project, assessing the biodiversity level between streams, Gia came to know rivers.
This is something that we've come to talk a lot about here at Grow Ensemble: what you know, you love, and what you love, you care for. And with work in hydropower almost seeming like a family legacy, there you go - off Gia and her brother Abe went onto hydro.
Before jumping into a much needed one on one on hydropower from Gia. Here's a quick word from one of our supporting Grow ensemble partners.
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[00:13:53] Gia Schneider:
Hydropower, for those who are not familiar with it, is basically how we generate electricity from moving water, primarily in rivers. It is the world's oldest form of renewable energy in the sense that we have plants in some cases that are over a hundred years old. It's also the largest source of renewable energy in the world today.
So the majority of the world's renewable energy comes from hydro, currently. So it's been around for a while, so the natural question would be, "what's the opportunity that we're focused on?" And there, really, it's twofold. So in hydro we have this case where, because it's been around for a long time, we've got about 1.3 terawatts of installed operating assets today.
So we have a large installed base, but that installed base is, in general, quite old, so over half of it is over several decades old. And in addition that it was then built at a time when the environmental requirements, or the environmental objectives and our understanding of the impact of these projects on rivers and river systems, was quite different than today.
And so as we go forward, we need to upgrade those existing older assets to meet modern environmental requirements. And so that's one part of the opportunity that we're focused on. And then the other part is that we actually have quite a bit of additional resource. We can do about 10 times what we currently have installed today with appropriate technology that helps unlock that new hydro resource in a way that keeps rivers connected or even in some cases may help improve river function. And that's the other part of what we're focused on.
So how do we upgrade the old stuff to be productive and part of the energy transition, and then how do we unlock new stuff. Again, cuz the challenge we face to make this transition to a zero-carbon grid is quite substantial. The last stat is that the International Energy Agency, in a report earlier this year, basically called out that we need to double the annual capacity additions of hydropower, along with everything else we need to do on wind and solar and batteries, et cetera, in order to meet Paris Climate objectives, which at this point are quite tough across the board; it's a big challenge.
So, our focus is how do we have hydro play an important role in that transition. As we look forward, climate change and biodiversity loss are kind of like the twin crises that face whole earth, face all of us, and hydropower is this interesting resource that sits kind of at the nexus of several things.
Climate change is water change. One of the key things besides just surface temperatures that we directly experience that are driven by climate change is changing water patterns, whether it's droughts or floods, more extreme precipitation events, et cetera. And that alone, that water change, has a whole host of implications for how we need to evolve our water infrastructure to adapt to changing climate, those changing water patterns.
Because every hydro project is a water project, hydropower has this interesting role where it can be both a way to reduce emissions, so, to help mitigate, but also adapt, on the water side. The other real interesting nexus with the biodiversity question is, again, rivers are kind of the circulatory system in some sense of the earth, right?
Obviously, everything needs water in order to live, but also the way rivers move sediment, obviously those species that functioning, healthy watersheds support, all of that is dramatically impacted by a whole host of human activities, hydropower being one of them.
At the end of the day, unfortunately, the majority of the world's rivers today are heavily modified, and in many cases fairly degraded. And so the other, kind of, motivation for us - the question we ask is, "is there a way for us to make hydropower projects part of restoring a river?" And I wanna be clear that we're not talking about necessarily having true wild, natural function, but also to a certain extent, that's a bit of an anomaly because we, again, have so heavily modified so many of our rivers today.
So, it's more of the question of, "can we design hydropower facilities leveraging work that's being done in river restoration, dam removal, et cetera, so that these projects help contribute to an improvement in river function and river health, at the same time, again, that they're generating renewable energy and helping us manage these changing water patterns?"
[00:18:25] Cory Ames:
It seems to me, just anecdotally speaking, that hydropower is something that isn't as talked about, I guess, in the space of renewable energy. I think more so the focus on maybe solar right now, and wind gets a lot of attention. And I'm not sure if that's because of the longevity, like it's just been around so long, that it's something that, you know, we aren't thinking about as much?
Or if maybe there's some sort of negative connotations with it now in the field of renewables with, you know, some of the drawbacks of what historical implementations have been. Is that something that you find yourself too, you feel like hydropower is less talked about? Or might that be difficult for you to assess given the fact that you're just so in it? Do you feel that is yours experience as well?
[00:19:10] Gia Schneider:
Yeah, absolutely. I think there's an interesting split depending on the audience. So I think actually within a number of utilities, there's a very, like, high awareness of hydropower, and frankly, the incredible flexibility that many hydropower assets have from a power generation perspective.
And so there's a very specific audience where it's very well known. Not every single plant can do all of the things, but basically, hydro in general is one of the most flexible resources, in many ways equivalent to what you would get with a combined cycle natural gas plant in terms of not just providing the actual instantaneous electrons, but also providing a whole host of other things that are called "grid reliability services" that basically mean, when you turn on your light, your light doesn't flicker because the frequency of the grid has to be within a certain range.
Anyhow, there's a whole stack of things that we as end consumers basically, at least certainly in the US, take for granted in terms of the quality of the electricity that we have on the grid and hydro as a resource can provide the full stack: storage, and then a whole host of these other kind of more arcane services that keep a grid reliable.
However, when you come out to the more general audience of working in renewables, absolutely. I think hydro is just not really known, or, as you know, people are just not as familiar with it.
And I think that is because of several things. One is, yes, it's been around for a long time and I do think that the types of projects that were built, like the Hoover dams, the really big, mega projects - frankly, Hoover's kind of small compared to the BIG mega projects like Three Gorges, for example, in China - we're just not going to build, certainly, at least in the US and in Europe for example, we're just not gonna build those types of projects anymore.
And so that's one part of like, you know, we really needed some innovation to unlock the ability to talk about how we would build new stuff, and in a way that looks very different than what we did in the past. So I think that's one part of it. And, the other is definitely the impact piece, that again, the legacy of the large projects that we've built in the past is often quite mixed.
Yes, they're great energy projects, but in the Pacific Northwest for example, there's definitely been an impact on salmon - fish in general, whether it's eel in the Atlantic, or salmon in the Pacific Northwest. The way we developed hydro in the past has obviously had a number of impacts from an environmental and social perspective.
And, maybe to just close the loop: we think it's possible, obviously, to do hydro differently, but I think that that combination of "we're not gonna do stuff the way we did in the past," it requires some innovation to think about how to unlock new, and that we obviously need to improve the environmental performance. Both of those things have contributed to hydro being a little bit left to the side in a lot of the more general discussions.
And so, it's that multidimensional nature I think that both my brother and I found really fascinating. And the opportunity, from our perspective, where some key innovations can basically help take this resource that's been with us for over a century and modernize it so that it is a really meaningful and very positive part of this transition to, not just a zero carbon grid, but hopefully a more biodiverse and sustainable future.
[00:22:49] Cory Ames:
And, I guess in the status of it, I understand, yes, globally, it's the leading source of renewable energy. And as well, that's true of the US, too, from what I understand. The rate of that increasing power capacity, do you see that correlates at all to the level in which it's discussed? The way it's increasing, if at all, and the investment in it - do you feel like it is a little bit to the side in that way, or do you not notice that?
[00:23:19] Gia Schneider:
I mean, yes and no. Basically, over the last decade or so, we've consistently added, globally, between 15 and 20 gigawatts a year of new hydro to the grid. And given the capacity factor of hydro, that's roughly - if you were to try to convert that to, say, equivalent solar megawatts, you do three to four x that. Probably three, call it three times that.
So there is real growth in hydro. The percentage growth rate is a lot lower than wind and solar, but that's because you're adding that 20 gigawatts on top of a 1.3 terawatt installed base, right? So the percentage, you know, that's just a math issue.
That being said, in order for us to meet the transition objectives for the energy transition, there's been a number of research pieces done, again, indicating that, to speed that transition, finding ways to double, basically, the annual installed capacity growth in hydro is critical. And we have to do that at the same time that we keep the existing 1.3 terawatts functional.
And so, again, I think that those data points are probably not as well known, and I think that it's a function of, again, understanding what's possible, right? Because at the end of the day, whether it's policy makers or general discussion and interest, it's always grounded in what people think is possible, right?
And maybe even electric vehicles is a good example of that. If you were to rewind 15 years ago and talk to somebody 15 years ago, many people were of the view that it was a really far out likelihood that electric vehicles would be where we are today, right? That we're on a path of phasing out internal combustion engines within, not just my lifetime, but we're talking a within a portion of my lifetime.
And that's a huge shift in perception of what's possible. And I think, in hydro, we can show that, with innovation, it is possible to actually make fish safe turbines; to make it possible for hydropower facilities to take elements of river restoration and combine that so that we end up with projects that help to restore or maintain river function while also generating renewable energy; that those projects can help deal with these changing water patterns that we see, particularly with the extreme precipitation events; that raising the awareness of what's possible then helps shift the general perception of an interest, right?
Because people want to focus on things that are possible. And so I think that there's very much a circular element there that, at the end of the day, everything we're doing in this energy transition is ultimately about carefully putting the pieces together from the innovation side and then translating that to scale.
Same thing happened in solar, same thing happened in wind, right? When, you know, the early pioneers who started working on it in the seventies - or even before that, actually - were obviously at a point when, again, the general perception and expectation was that solar and wind were a very long ways off from ever becoming a big part of our energy supply.
And now, they are going to be the future, right? They're a core part of that future.
[00:26:40] Cory Ames:
For policy makers, public discussion, or whatever, as Gia puts it, it's always grounded in what people think is possible. And so, what's possible with hydropower? What's the future of hydropower look like?
Gia's already shared with us a myriad of benefits of hydro: hydropower is reliable in ways that other energy sources are not; hydropower provides consistent quality energy in ways that others don't; hydropower is already well established - it's a renewable energy source that we've been working with for well over a hundred years.
Gia says so much is possible in hydro that many of us might not be paying attention to. And thankfully, because of the work of Natel and others in the field, we might be able to wield hydropower without its historic compromise. Turbines can be fish safe, facilities can be water restoration projects, as well as clean energy projects.
Hydropower can help us to adapt to our changing climate, not arguably exasperate it more than it helps, all the while providing affordable, reliable, clean electricity. And now, after a quick word from one of our Grow ensemble partners, we'll explain exactly how this can be done with hydro, where Gia introduces Restoration Hydro.
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[00:29:36] Gia Schneider:
So first, just from the kind of core tech perspective, which is "how do we produce energy from moving water?" It's similar to what happens in wind. So, in wind, the wind turns the blades of a wind turbine and then that turns a generator to produce electricity. So in hydropower, same thing. Water moves through a turbine, which spins and then the blades spin and that spins the generator of produce electricity.
Our core innovation has been to take the blades of that turbine and make them fish safe. And just for a little bit of additional context, the historically accepted engineering knowledge was that in order to make a turbine very efficient in hydro, you needed to make the blades very thin, which is all well and good.
Hydro turbines are some of the most efficient machines in the world. You get 94, 95% efficiency. Thin blades that spin fast are not friendly to things passing through them. I'm oversimplifying a little bit, but that's from a big picture perspective. At the end of the day, conventional machines are just not very friendly to fish.
If you want fish to be able to move downstream, you can't move fish downstream through the hydro facility, so you need to send them around in some way, shape, or form if you want the fish to survive, which adds a whole bunch of complexity.
You have to screen so that fish don't go through the turbine, and then you have to have a bypass where they can go around. There's complexities around how to design those bypasses so that they do actually get fish downstream. And at the end of the day, it all translates to more complexity and cost.
Our thesis was that we would be able to redesign those blades and make them fish safe. And if we could make them fish safe, then fish could just go through the plant and you would eliminate all this additional cost and complexity while maintaining safe passage. And that is what we have done.
The core is simply, our blades are no longer very thin. They have a very thick leading edge, and that thick leading edge basically creates kinda almost like an airbag or a zone in front of the blade that deflects fish and other things basically around the blade as opposed to resulting in a direct strike.
And that is, at its core what makes the turbine that we've developed fish safe. And at this point we've proven this in tests with eel, salmon, sturgeon, alewife, which are a type of river herring on the East coast in the US. And so we've done, I think six or seven different studies with independent third parties and national labs and have consistently proven greater than 99% safe passage for fish across a range of sizes and species.
And so that's the core innovation on the turbine side. If we can pass fish safely through a plant, then we can generate more energy because now we don't have to send water around, we can just put water through the powerhouse, and that generates more electricity.
We can reduce cost because we don't have all the additional complexity of screens, et cetera. Again, fish can just go through the plant safely. And we can deliver the environmental objective, which is to have safe downstream passage of fish.
The other part of what we do is, we're definitely working with a number of practitioners in the field of river restoration, dam removal, et cetera, to do several things. One is understand how do we design upstream passage, right? Because we wanna get fish downstream safely, but we still also want to have full connectivity.
We're not doing direct innovation on this. There's a lot of work that already has been done, and, in general, certainly for smaller dams, upstream passage is something that's much more well-characterized and understood.
But we wanna go beyond that then to think about how do we take some of the learnings from dam removals and river restoration, particularly where it's been focused on things like reconnecting a river to its floodplain in ways that help better manage floods, for example, and help reduce what's called channelization and incision. Basically, where, if you remove everything from a river's path, which has been done in a lot of cases, you end up with a river that just erodes quickly through.
And so actually when you look to restore natural function, you want to recreate meanders and bypass reaches and wetland areas and log jams and things like that, that basically create really diverse habitat, but also help to stabilize the riverbed, help create a more robust connection to the floodplain.
And then that functioning floodplain becomes an incredibly important buffer for dealing with extreme precipitation events. It also, on the flip side, from a groundwater recharge perspective, can become zones where, on one hand you wanna slow flooding down, slow the runoff of water across the landscape down cuz that helps reduce flooding. But the flip side of that is that that also then helps improve groundwater recharge.
And that's the other side of this whole cycle is how do we mitigate floods? How do we move water into the ground, because water in the ground then supports flows when we don't have rain, right? So it helps on the drought mitigation side.
And again, there's some really fascinating work that's being done by a number of folks looking at beavers and the impacts that beaver dams have, particularly in the West, for example, on this. And just a ton of really awesome knowledge that we're now starting to work with a number of partners to connect that to, again, how do we inform better design in what we call Restoration Hydro.
So, kind of our overall philosophy and approach for thinking about this re-imagining of what hydropower projects look like is we all wrap up in this term that we call Restoration Hydro.
[00:35:28] Cory Ames:
And, what's the kinda rough cost of the hydropower that y'all are producing, perhaps versus historically? Is it on par, and as well versus other renewable sources available.
[00:35:41] Gia Schneider:
So, again, new build is different than repowering. Repowering tends to be a little less expensive simply cuz you've already got the existing plant and equipment, so it's more of an upgrade.
And because these are old plants, in some cases these plants are 50 years or 80 years old, they're fully what's called "depreciated". So the effective costs can maybe look a little artificially low. On that side you're down, probably into the, like, 3 cents range, maybe even lower.
Which, for an asset that is producing not just instantaneous electrons, but is actually able to produce a certain amount of electricity all year and kind of as a baseload asset, which is - again, this is not a knock against solar and wind. We're gonna need everything to make the energy transition.
But the challenge that we face is that, we get sun for six, maybe a few more hours every day. We get wind depending on where we're at different times. Hydro has a profile that can slot in nicely, kind of as a foundational element basically, around that.
So, 3 cents on the low end. And then, for projects on the new build side, a couple of the new build projects we're working on come in more around like 5, 6 cents per kilowatt hour. And that's cheaper than what you would have with solar plus storage. But I would caveat this by saying, we need all of this.
So we think of it less as an elbows out competition and more of a, at the end of the day, the big picture is that this is very cost effective power. It is also a very complimentary and cost effective resource for grid reliability services. And frankly, we're seeing opportunities to put batteries co-located with hydro facilities.
So, uh, I think the future actually looks quite different where there will be places and in certain markets where it's gonna make a ton of sense to - maybe historically you would've built a larger hydro facility, but in today's world, it'll make more sense to have a smaller hydro facility with some battery storage and maybe also some solar co-located as a hybridized plant.
I'm pretty excited about that. I think that's actually a lot of the big picture, not just hydro only, but hydro plus, where the hydro is kind of like the baseload element supporting an overall energy supply stack.
[00:38:04] Cory Ames:
What do you see currently as still the existing limitations on the technology that y'all developed? Where are the current problems that y'all are looking to solve?
[00:38:15] Gia Schneider:
Yeah, it's a great question. Maybe for context, where we are today is we have a couple projects installed. We have two projects installed, one in Maine, one in Oregon. We have a third project that is being installed right now in Austria, which will be our first European installation.
Of the current installed projects, we have about two and a half years of track record of operating history, and that's really critical because now we can point to some historical operation. The plants have been operating as expected, generating electricity as expected from a commercial perspective.
At the end of the day, for utilities and developers and the folks who are customers, they really wanna see the environmental piece. They also wanna see the power generation piece. And so, that's where we are today. Those are all projects that are still fairly small.
You know, they were early projects, all less than a megawatt in size, but kind of the first initial commercial projects. But like, commercial demonstration projects is kind of how I would classify them.
Where we are going is to move into projects that are up to on the order of like, 30 to 50 megawatts in size. And just to give you a couple examples, we're working on a combined 80 megawatt project. It's three individual sites, 80 megawatts total in Louisiana.
That's a project that's in development right now. That's new builds; that's putting new hydro at existing non-power dams. So that's kind of on the new build side of things.
And then in the repowering side, so this is taking old hydro projects and updating them with fish safe turbines, we are working on a couple deals on the east coast of the US where we're working with a utility, so an existing owner of the plant, and they know that they need to take these plants from currently passing fewer fish than they should, and upgrade them to be able to fully pass fish safely.
And those are projects that are kind of 20, 25 megawatts each. That's kind of where we're headed. In terms of the remaining things that we need to do to go from where we are today to delivering on some of these larger projects, it's really more of a manufacturing and supply chain scaling issue at this point.
There are always challenges at every stage in the company's existence. So I'd say we're out of the, what I think of as the more sciencey phase and earlier engineering phase where we needed to prove that we could make fish safe, efficient equipment and that it could work and that could work in normal commercial operating conditions.
Those are all things, as you note, there will be continued evolution and certainly improvement. But at that point, we've checked the foundational box, so to speak. The next step for us is scaling up production.
Production is a combination of both a supply chain, because a lot of what we supply to our customers are things like generators or controls or elements that we don't make and we'll never make ourselves so we have to build up the supply chain of who we work with to make those things.
We do make the turbine itself, the blades, and that's the other part of the scaling process for us. And I think there we see some really interesting opportunities that are in line with the general impetus right now of, you know, bringing manufacturing back to the US.
And I think really some interesting opportunities there for us to invest in the ability to make those kinds of fish safe blades directly here in the US, both to supply projects here, but also, we're seeing some pretty strong demand growth coming in Europe, and so pretty exciting to be able to think about, you know, building the manufacturing capacity that can also support that market as well.
[00:42:09] Cory Ames:
Gia, I did mention briefly that it did take some time for y'all to develop the technology that you did. You said that you have exited the very sciencey, research phase, and development phase. You can correct me on the exact timeline, but I think that was maybe 8 to 10 years or so that it took for y'all to get to where you have the very strong solution that you have now.
I'm curious, what helped you and your brother to keep going during that, what I imagine felt like, in some instances, quite the slog, just to get to the initial point to where you are really engaging in some very first viable projects?
[00:42:52] Gia Schneider:
So, yeah, you're correct. It was 9, 10 years of that, kind of, first phase. And part of it was because capital was fairly thin, particularly in the early years. We were fortunate to win a number of grants from the Department of Energy and we had some early backing from several very large family offices as well who were kind of longer-term investors really focused on this kind of combination of sustainability, climate, and renewable energy supply.
That being said, yes, it took a long time. It's interesting cuz when you look at our current business plan, and actually, one of those very old business plans, there's some things that are very constant. A number of things have changed, but then there's some things that are very constant.
We have been focused from day one on being able to deliver a source of energy that's three to five cent power, and that's where we are now. That was kind of the goal from the beginning and where we are now, which is great.
And then the other big constant for us was - and this then goes directly to our motivation at the end of the day, finding ways to invest in - and this comes from our personal connection to rivers and water, I think is a big part of it - is that we just very specifically wanted to focus on a solution that would be able to tackle this intersection of climate, energy, and water and the environment.
And hydro is just one of the few places where we felt like all of those pieces came together. I think that just is a core part of the motivation. I think the other element is - it's funny cuz often along our path, obviously I've spoken with lots of folks, lots of investors, and I've definitely had people say that it made them kind of nervous that, if you guys were, you know, best friends from college, that'd be great. But the fact that your siblings is a little scary.
The flip side is that I do think the fact that, particularly in the early days - so my brother and I had very different skillsets. He really drives the technology part of what we do. I often say he's the whole brains of the operation. I focus on the commercial policy, investment finance, et cetera, side of things.
And in the early days before we were fortunate, now, to have an incredible team to work with, when it was really just us, there's just too much to do - you have to have a lot of trust. And I think that actually, that was also a really important element for both of us to keep going. At the end of the day we were in it together, and able to just have a lot of trust in each other's ability to kind of take care of the two very different parts of what needed to happen to pull the pieces together.
The thing is to balance urgency for action with patience and persistence, and find a way to remain optimistic, which underpins them being able to have persistence with patience. I've been working in climate for over 20 years at this point, and it is on one hand very frustrating to me to look back at presentations I made in 2005 where I had these, like, peak and decline curves.
Or if you go all the way back to Rio 1993, right? So when some of those very first, big - Rio Summit - coordination starting point: we need to tackle carbon, greenhouse gas emissions. And that was the first peak and decline graph was released then. And if you look at the successive graphs over time, all that has happened is that the tail of the decline when we need to be at net zero has just marched in. Because we've had action delayed. And that's, in one sense, incredibly frustrating.
So I think the flip side is you gotta be aware of that; that drives the urgency. And then you gotta realize that evolving this wholesale transition of our, not just our energy infrastructure, but kind of, like our entire economic way of life, is a very complex and hard transition to make.
And it is the work of a generation, maybe more. And so I just gotta balance. It's important, I think, to have that bigger picture perspective cuz otherwise you can get really down sometimes, to be blunt.
[00:47:23] Cory Ames:
So it's the work of a generation, Gia mentions, and to me this says something very important. Find work in the space of building a better world that matters to you. Don't try to manufacture meaning. If you wanna be in the space of bettering the world for the most sustainable term that's possible, you have to find something that matters enough to you to to stick with when progress feels slow or non-existent.
This isn't the first time that this reflection has come up with one of our guests. Throughout our conversation, Gia was incredibly humble and perhaps even a bit matter of fact as to how she approaches the work that she does.
But I saw this as a problem that she and her brother were raised to solve. In a way, it's a problem that she's been thinking about for nearly a lifetime, dating all the way back to the days where her brother and her were noticing the difference in quality of fishing between the streams where beaver dams had been cleared out.
So as we wrap this episode, I want to thank Gia for the time that she spent with me, and I want to invite you and me to think for ourselves: What might be possible when we find the problem we were born to solve?
A passionate believer in finding ways to mitigate the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss using renewable and reliable water power, Gia Schneider co-founded Natel Energy in 2009 with her brother, Abe Schneider. Now serving as Natel’s CEO, Schneider was inspired at a young age by her father, an inventor of novel renewable energies, and has spent more than 20 years working in the energy industry.
Today, as CEO, Schneider leads and operates Natel’s growing portfolio of hardware and software hydro solutions, including the design and build of fish-safe turbines and oversight of hydropower project developments and river restorations in locations worldwide.
Under Schneider’s leadership, Natel also acquired Upstream Tech in 2017, providing enhanced water intelligence through machine learning, satellite imagery and data to further support hydropower operations and improve remote watershed monitoring.
Before co-founding Natel, Schneider served as a partner at EKO Asset Management Partners, where she concentrated on developing markets in ecosystem services; before that Schneider helped establish the energy trading desk at Credit Suisse. She also started the carbon emissions desk, growing it to a profitable business in its first year. Other past roles include commodity-focused work at both Constellation Energy and Accenture.
Schneider was recently selected as a 2022 Grist “Fixer,” an honor given to the top 50 emerging leaders in climate and sustainability and is an Unreasonable Fellowship recipient, an invite-only organization of growth-stage entrepreneurs.
Schneider received her Chemical Engineering and Economics degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is a graduate of the Texas Academy of Math and Sciences (TAMS) and currently serves as a board member of the Freshwater Trust and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) National Council.
In her spare time, Schneider enjoys surfing, kiting, and cooking with family and friends. Schneider, her husband, and her daughter live in California.
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