Hydropower, the United States’ oldest source of renewable electricity, has become a powerhouse for the nation’s energy needs. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, hydropower currently accounts for nearly 7 percent of the total electricity generated in the nation.

“Hydropower has been undergoing a renaissance in the 21st century because of its low carbon footprint and new technology that enables harnessing flows at sites beyond those suitable for conventional dams,” said Erich Hester, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech.

Hester said there are also a growing number of challenges to the use of hydropower, including many conventional hydropower facilities nearing the end of their design lives and the impact of climate change on river flows. There also is increasing public concern for impacts to aquatic ecosystems that is leading to dam removal projects.

Hester will work to overcome these challenges in his yearlong appointment as a hydropower fellow for the U.S. Department of Energy in Washington, D.C. His fellowship will involve seeking ways to develop new low-impact hydropower, promote environmental sustainability, and support grid reliability. His fellowship is awarded by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the largest international body of professional scientists in the world.

Although hydropower technology has been around for thousands of years, aging infrastructure and new clean-energy policies create both challenges and opportunities for innovation in the field. Specifically, Hester will work in the energy department’s Water Power Technologies Office to evaluate how hydropower can be sustainably expanded while accounting for competing uses and current trends such as water supply, flood control, aquatic ecosystems, and climate change.

Hydropower energy is generated by harnessing elevation differences along a waterway, often created by a dam or other structure. It costs less than most sources of electricity because it relies on the energy of moving water. In recent years, hydropower has gained popularity as a clean and cost-effective form of energy.

Solving hydropower challenges is important to the commonwealth because it is home to several hydropower facilities, according to the Virginia Energy Patterns and Trends database at Virginia Tech. Conventional hydroelectric generating facilities, which are located on rivers primarily in the southern part of Virginia, use dams to direct water flow through electricity-generating turbines. There also are two pumped-storage hydro facilities, located in Bath County and at Smith Mountain Lake. These units generate energy using conventional hydroelectric turbines but store the water in basins above and below the turbines.

Hester will augment his hydropower research with past professional experience based on a broader systems perspective of water resources. He teaches a course in hydraulic structures and dams and has conducted pro-bono feasibility studies for microhydropower installations for landowners in Virginia. His broader research perspective also brings experience in flood control, river restoration, and floodplain management.  Before joining Virginia Tech in 2009, his private sector experience as a water resources engineer on the West Coast included design of flood control and river management infrastructure, river restoration projects for aquatic ecosystem benefits, and feasibility studies for dam removal.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science was founded in 1973, its first seven fellows being members of Congress. Today, there is a national network of 3,000 fellows and alumni. 

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