What new hydropower tech says about local weather motion


This text is from The Spark, MIT Expertise Overview’s weekly local weather publication. To obtain it in your inbox each Wednesday, enroll right here.

For practically two years, I’ve been excited about a set of photographs of fish I noticed at a convention. 

The presentation was from our ClimateTech occasion in 2022, after we invited scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs in fields from fusion vitality to agriculture to speak about their work. Gia Schneider, a cofounder of Natel Power, was talking about her firm’s mission to design hydropower generators which can be safer for fish. 

She confirmed photos of fish that had been hit by standard turbine blades, and let me inform you, it wasn’t good. When the fish hit these fast-moving items of steel, they shortly turned … not precisely fish-shaped anymore. Then again, the fish swimming by Natel’s generators appeared hardly bothered, curving across the blades and occurring their merry method downstream. 

Just lately, I lastly acquired the prospect to talk with Schneider about how Natel is working to alter hydropower know-how and juggle local weather motion with freshwater ecosystems. Learn all about it in my newest story, and within the meantime, right here’s why I’ve been so obsessive about fish and hydropower tech. 

Hydropower is the world’s main supply of renewable electrical energy. It usually performs an important function balancing the grid, since hydroelectric vegetation with dams can retailer vitality and be ramped up and down to assist meet demand. When hydropower manufacturing goes down, because it did final yr when droughts struck the western US, emissions go up.

However hydropower may have an entire vary of destructive results on the setting. Dams have contributed to a collapse in populations of migratory freshwater fish, that are down by greater than 80% since 1970. (Mining and water diversion additionally play a job right here, so we are able to’t fully blame hydropower and even dams used for different functions.) 

Natel is trying to make hydropower a bit extra fish-friendly. Its generators are curved another way and have blunter edges that push water out in entrance of them, creating one thing of an “airbag for fish,” as Schneider places it. That helps extra fish go by the ability vegetation safely.

Now is a superb time to rethink the know-how we use in hydropower vegetation, Schneider explains, as a result of the fleet is getting old, and plenty of vegetation are due for recommissioning from regulators within the subsequent decade or so.  

As she sees it, the query dealing with utilities is: “Are we going to exchange it with what we now have used prior to now, which we all know has a destructive influence on the setting? Or can we discover methods to improve and modernize the fleet in order that we are able to get one other 4 or 5 a long time of fine operation out of it, however achieve this in a method that materially improves the environmental efficiency?”

We will draw parallels with so many different conditions the place efforts to handle local weather change can problem and conflict with work to protect biodiversity and the setting. 

Take mining. We’d like lithium and an entire host of different metals to construct the infrastructure to energy the world with renewables and different low-emission energy sources. However determining the place to get these metals and the best way to get native communities on board generally is a problem, as my colleague James Temple coated in a set of tales final yr one proposed lithium mine in Minnesota. 

And whereas photo voltaic panels have turn into a serious supply of low-emission energy throughout the western US, new initiatives have typically met pushback due to issues about how they’ll have an effect on native wildlife within the grassland and desert ecosystems there. Biologists are particularly involved about animals like pronghorns. Populations of the antelope-like creatures are a fraction of what they was once, and improvement might fracture their habitat even additional. 

It may be tough to steadiness the wants of native ecosystems and communities with the necessity to make world progress on our emissions targets. The trade-offs may look completely different for each challenge and each ecosystem, however new initiatives must take this steadiness significantly, as a result of local weather change impacts all of us—together with the fish. 

Now learn the remainder of The Spark

Associated studying

Learn my full story on how Natel may make hydropower know-how safer for fish. 

Emissions hit a brand new excessive in 2023, partly as a result of hydropower output fell brief after droughts, as I coated in a publication earlier this yr

The Volga River in Russia is the longest river in Europe, however too many dams have slowed its movement to a trickle. A 2021 characteristic examined how the river may very well be rehabilitated. 

Maintaining with local weather  

Google is the newest huge tech firm to fall behind on local weather targets and level the finger at AI. The corporate launched a report exhibiting that emissions grew 13% in 2023 from the yr earlier than and are 48% greater than in 2019. (Related Press)

→ AI is an vitality hog. Right here’s how nervous we needs to be about its results on the grid. (MIT Expertise Overview)

The US Supreme Courtroom handed down a number of the largest choices of the time period within the final week, together with one that would gradual motion on local weather change. Companies could have much less leeway in deciphering imprecise legal guidelines, which might throw a wrench in issues like tax credit for brand spanking new local weather applied sciences. (Latitude Media)

Common Hydrogen was making an attempt to construct a brand new option to fly with out producing greenhouse gases, however now the corporate is folding. The startup raised $100 million for its hydrogen-powered planes however struggled to get additional financing. (Seattle Instances)

Hurricane Beryl tore by the southern Caribbean early this week, killing not less than six folks. (Related Press)

→ It’s the earliest within the season a storm has ever reached Class 4 standing, offering a clue to how the timing of storms may change as local weather change heats up our oceans. (Bloomberg)

Denmark will tax farmers on emissions from their cows, sheep, and pigs beginning in 2030. The nation would be the first to take action after an analogous regulation in New Zealand bumped into outcry from the trade and was struck earlier than it might go into impact. (NPR)

A brand new facility in Finland will stash spent nuclear gas 1,500 toes underground. Getting folks to stay close to a nuclear waste storage facility may be the one factor harder than constructing one. (Grist)