Hydropower Foundation Promotes Hydro Jobs with Immersive Hydro Education Program

In the digital age, with the lure of Silicon Valley and start-ups, young people often don’t exhibit an aspiration to work in hydropower. That changes, however, when they are introduced to the challenging, rewarding and plentiful opportunities available in the industry. Organizations like the Hydropower Foundation are working to find new ways to show them the benefits of a career in hydropower.

For many years, the foundation led a Research Awards Program, funded by the Department of Energy, to further the industry’s knowledge base and to introduce students to hydropower. The program was highly successful and led to 75 percent of participating students going on to pursue jobs in hydropower. When the event ended in December 2018, the foundation began brainstorming ways to continue building momentum about jobs in the industry.

President of the Hydropower Foundation’s Board of Directors and Principal Engineer for Alabama Power Kenneth Odom saw an opportunity to hold a competition to solve a real problem occurring at Alabama Power’s Logan-Martin Dam in Alabama. The Hydro Think Tank was born.

“The Hydro Think Tank allowed us to spend some very meaningful time with students from some of the universities in Alabama, teaching them about all the hydropower that’s right here in our state,” Odom says.

In mid-May 2018, 12 students were divided into four teams to find a solution for a dissolved oxygen problem that can occur when extreme rainfall events lead to a high organic load in a reservoir.

Students were challenged to find an innovative way to increase and optimize dissolved oxygen levels. The winning team would be awarded the grand prize of $500 per student, students in the second place team would receive $300 each and those in the third-place team would go home with $200 each.

Students were tasked with putting themselves in the shoes of Alabama Power’s dissolved oxygen expert, determining the best way to operate the plant’s aeration systems to increase the dissolved oxygen levels with minimal cost. To find a solution, students could use the plant’s blower system, a forebay diffuser system, or a combination of the two to increase the dissolved oxygen level. The goal was to record a minimum of 5 milligrams per liter during generation at the regulatory monitor, which is located a mile below the dam.

While students worked together to solve the problem, they also attended workshops on public speaking, interviewing, and building a resume. In addition, students participated in a scavenger hunt to get familiar with the many parts of the power plant, completed a diagram showing parts of a hydro plant, and had the opportunity to take a dissolved oxygen profile measurement in the Logan-Martin Reservoir.

At the end of the week, the teams presented their work to judges, who consisted of river managers from Alabama Power Company, a professional from General Electric, and a representative from HDR, a firm that provides engineering, architecture, environmental, and construction services.

Teams were judged based on organization and completeness, comprehension, quality, originality and innovation, presentation and documentation, and engineering teamwork. Team number two took home the gold for its presentation.

“All of the students were very excited about it,” says Hydropower Foundation’s Program Director Bree Mendlin. “Many had not considered hydropower as a career choice before this week, and all said they would now consider a job in hydro.”

One of the students on the winning team, Beth Prior, is already involved in another hydropower undertaking: working on a fish passage project with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

The competition benefited Alabama Power as well. “Everyone at Alabama Power was super excited. In his spare time, Kenneth teaches at some of the universities,” Mendlin says. “It’s his passion to educate students, and you really saw that come to life during the week. We all loved the time we spent with the students.”

The event was such a success that the Hydropower Foundation already has plans to replicate the competition at hydropower facilities across the country. In May 2019, the foundation is heading to the Northeast for a competition involving the New York Power Authority, Brookfield Renewable and General Electric. Later in 2019, it’s holding a competition in the Pacific Northwest.

The Hydropower Foundation’s efforts were honored by the National Hydropower Association, which awarded it with a 2019 Outstanding Stewards of America’s Waters award in the category of Public Education.