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In a Win for Clean Energy and Biodiversity, New Studies Raise the Bar on Fish Safety for Hydropower

In a Win for Clean Energy and Biodiversity, New Studies Raise the Bar on Fish Safety for Hydropower

Alameda, California,  — Natel Energy and leading research institution Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), concluded a series of scientific studies that affirm an average of >99% safe passage of key migratory fish species through Natel’s unique turbine design, setting a new benchmark for fish safety in the hydropower industry and making significant headway in the fight to preserve biodiversity while advancing renewable energy production.

To keep global warming under 1.5 degrees C, the amount of power generated by water must double by 2050. But in the U.S. and around the world, hydropower plants have impaired river connectivity, causing fish and river ecosystems to suffer, and sparking controversy around the net environmental effects of hydroelectricity. Three tests conducted by Natel and PNNL have demonstrated that a novel turbine design is revolutionizing the relationship between hydropower and fish safety — enabling efficient renewable energy generation, while ensuring safe downstream passage across fish species and sizes.

“The team at Natel is driven to find innovative ways to mitigate the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss; so, we built the Restoration Hydro Turbine (RHT) to generate clean energy and allow for safe downstream passage for the fish that inhabit our waters,” said Gia Schneider, co-founder and CEO, Natel Energy.  “To move the needle on climate change, hydropower must be part of the solution. Our studies with PNNL conclude that hydropower can preserve fish species that are critical to societal and ecological health while helping the planet reach net zero emissions.”

Latest scientific study findings — setting new industry precedent 

The most recent Natel/PNNL test of 186 large rainbow trout measuring up to 500 mm (19. 7 inches) in length, found no meaningful difference between the fish passed through Natel’s 1.9 meter (roughly 6 feet) in diameter turbine and the control group, indicating that the RHT allows safe passage of some of the largest fish ever successfully passed through a compact hydro turbine.

Watch: Reserchers from Natel and PNNL conduct a revolutionary test of large rainbow trout at the Monroe Hydro Plant.

Earlier tests of smaller rainbow trout passed through Natel’s turbine demonstrated 100% survival, as did tests of 174 American eels, many of which were longer than the turbine diameter. The successful safe passage of American eels (listed as endangered by the IUCN) through a compact hydro turbine is unparalleled in the industry, and Natel’s study is the first-ever to capture video footage of eels passing through a turbine.

The problem between fish survival and conventional hydropower is real

According to NOAA Fisheries, in the US, over two million dams block fish from migrating each year, including the two species tested. The status quo for fish passage has been to exclude fish from hydro turbines using screens to direct fish to alternate routes downstream, which can delay migrations and expose fish to predators. However, many fish still enter turbines where they are subject to traumatic injuries or death and cannot continue their lifecycle.

While some hydropower plants have demonstrated safe through-turbine fish passage, no existing solution can yet be applied broadly. One approach is to use slowly-rotating equipment that is easy for fish to navigate, but this technology is limited to plants producing less than 1 MW of power. At the few large-scale (>50 MW) plants that strive for fish-friendliness, turbine diameters measure over 6 m while  safe passage has only been demonstrated for small fish ~200 mm in length. Natel’s RHT is the first in the industry to enable safe fish passage for large fish through small turbines, while also offering turbine configurations that support a wide range of power outputs suitable for both small and large hydro plants.

The opportunity for fish-safe turbines

“We’ve designed Natel’s turbines for fish inclusion, which means fish can safely follow a river’s flow directly through hydropower turbines without needing to be excluded from them with fine screens and enduring delays in migration while navigating to downstream bypass systems,” said Natel co-founder and CTO, Abe Schneider. “Fish inclusion may be the simplest and most cost-effective way to ensure safe downstream passage of fish, while allowing hydropower plants to operate normally and without the high costs imposed by fish exclusion screens and periodic shutdowns during migratory periods. The studies we’ve conducted with PNNL have helped validate the fish safety of our unique turbine design, highlighting its potential to upgrade existing hydro plants that block downstream migrations, and to develop new plants that maintain downstream river connectivity.”

Beyond its positive impact on fish population health, Natel’s turbine can boost project economics with up to 20% improved efficiency through modernization upgrades and can reduce installation costs by up to 10%. The combined results of Natel’s three studies with PNNL lay a foundation for a new era of fish-safe hydropower that can accelerate the transition to a renewable grid while maintaining aquatic biodiversity.

For more on Natel and their ongoing efforts to support an evolved, fish-safe approach to hydropower, please contact press@natelenergy.com.

About Natel Energy

Natel Energy, Inc., provides water, energy and environmental intelligence solutions for the changing climate. An independent power producer, Natel acquires and upgrades operating hydropower plants and develops new, low-impact hydro installations that are fish-safe, enhance river connectivity and deliver reliable renewable energy. Natel’s work is guided by techniques from river restoration and complemented by monitoring and forecasting software from Upstream Tech, a company that Natel acquired in 2017. Natel’s proprietary hardware and software portfolio and nature-based approach are revolutionizing the hydro and environmental intelligence landscapes. Natel is a privately held company located in Alameda, California in the United States. Visit www.natelenergy.com for more information.