Generating Hydropower’s Future: HRF Working to Attract New Employees

The Hydro Research Foundation is working to combat the impact of the aging workforce in the hydroelectric industry by bringing along a new generation of hydro professionals through educational opportunities, funding and mentorship.

By Brenna Vaughn

It all began four years ago as an experiment. It was a wild idea, with no historical precedent, certainly not conservative in approach, and basically a long shot. Could the hydropower industry, on its own volition and with support from the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Wind and Waterpower Program, address and reverse the effects of the aging workforce by stimulating new research in hydropower? A few progressive-thinking industry leaders approached the Hydro Research Foundation (HRF), a nonprofit foundation that since 1994 had facilitated research and promoted educational opportunities. The foundation was formed by the National Hydropower Association (NHA) alongside top executives from the industry to collaborate on the fish -riendly turbine in the 1990s. If anyone could collaborate, this was the group to take on this challenge. When approached with this monumental challenge, HRF thought, “Yes!”

Thus, the Hydro Fellowship Program was born.

Hydro Research Foundation fellows participated in various portions of Hydro-Vision International, including the technical tours.
Hydro Research Foundation fellows participated in various portions of Hydro-Vision International, including the technical tours.

A new approach

The idea was simple: generate new interest in hydropower at the university level by highlighting cutting-edge research needs, offer a competitive fellowship package to interested graduate level students, and provide valuable links through mentorships within the industry to stimulate career paths. In 2009, the foundation assembled a steering group of 12 members representing manufacturing, academia, consulting and hydro project owners/operators to design an application, research topics of interest and select the fellows for the first year of the program. Participants are selected based not only on their excellent academic performance but also their leadership and participation in their communities. The foundation firmly believes that hydropower is a community and good team leaders and members are critical to the long-term success of the industry.

Each fellow with the foundation receives tuition support, a living stipend, and registration for the HydroVision International event with the support of PennWell Corporation. In addition, each student’s academic advisor working with the Fellow at the university on a daily basis receives an honorarium During the one- to three-year period of study, each student attends industry events like Northwest Hydropower Association Meetings, National Hydropower Association meetings, and HydroVision International, builds connections with a mentor from the hydropower industry and the foundation’s steering group.

This group includes Linda Church Ciocci (NHA), John Etzel (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers), Carol Goolsby (Duke Energy), Dr. John Gulliver (University of Minnesota), Dr. Paul Jacobson (Electric Power Research Institute), Diane Lear (NHA), Deborah Linke (HRF), Patrick March (Hydro Performance Processes Inc.), Kerry McCalman (U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation) Sonya Reiser (Knight Piesold Consulting), Gerry Russell (Weir American Hydro), Dr. Michael Sale (Low Impact Hydro Institute), and Dr. Larry Weber (University of Iowa).

The 2012 alumni from left: Mike George, Mitch Clement, Marina Kopytkovskiy, Ilker Telci, and Andrew Dozier.
The 2012 alumni from left: Mike George, Mitch Clement, Marina Kopytkovskiy, Ilker Telci, and Andrew Dozier.

Graduates entering hydropower

In 2010, the first awards were made to nine students and, to date, 43 students have been funded through the program at 26 universities from Alaska to Georgia. Now, 22 have graduated and, of these graduates, 18 are continuing hydropower research, have taken jobs in industry or are actively seeking employment in the hydro industry.

Topics of research being explored by the fellows include aeration in turbines and at low-head structures; integration of hydropower with other renewables; feasibility of low-head, micro and conduit hydropower; stochastic energy scheduling, environmentally friendly lubricants; and water variability due to climate change. Each student has a different area of focus, and so the compilation of areas being researched is quite impressive. It appears as though DOE and HRF are making an impact on the aging workforce by attracting top-notch scientists and engineers to the industry through the Hydro Fellowship Program. In addition to the infusion of new employees for workforce development, there are now 22 research projects for the industry’s use that are public information and published on the foundation’s website,

In addition to DOE’s financial support, more than 50 hydropower organizations participate in the program through mentorships, internships and support through partnerships with Avista Foundation, Knight Piesold Consulting, NHA, PennWell Corporation, the Corps, and Weir American Hydro

Generating student interest

Each fellow is exposed to the breadth and depth of the industry through their study with the foundation, which generates great interest not only by the fellow, but by their peer groups within their university. Chris Schleicher, a current fellow from Lehigh University, commented, “Being a Fellow of the Hydro Research Foundation is very empowering and a great honor. Ever since my first co-op experience in the industry, I’ve had an admiration for the work done by the engineers I’ve encountered. There are many aspects to the hydro industry, and when they all come together some pretty amazing things happen! Just being able to leave an impact on the industry through this fellowship is a great honor.”

“Being able to talk amongst people of like-minded interests and sharing ideas is an invaluable experience. It really makes you feel like you’re part of something pretty big, and I am humbled and grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this group,” he said.

Eliot Meyer, another fellow from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, explained that, “Being a Hydro Research Foundation fellow means academic freedom and immense opportunities post-graduation. Being an HRF fellow means academic freedom because the funding I receive allows me to passionately explore and research a topic of my choosing. Knowing that my research goals align with an industry organization such as HRF also reassures me that my work is worthwhile and meaningful for a wider audience. After attending HydroVision International 2013, my eyes have been opened to a range of career possibilities that I would not have thought or known about without being an HRF fellow. This motivates me to seek out these opportunities in the near future.”

Enthusiastic response by employers

Potential industry employers are also enthusiastic about the program and the fellows it produces. John Etzel, deputy director of the Corps’ Hydroelectric Design Center in Portland, Ore., says, “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is the largest single hydropower producer in the U.S, producing nearly one fourth of the nation’s generated hydropower capacity. HDC has the vision to be “leaders in hydropower engineering,” and to do so we must utilize our most valuable resource – people – to the greatest extent.”

“HDC is proud to partner with the Hydro Research Foundation. Combining the foundation’s scholarship contributions along with the Corps’ hands-on industry opportunities creates a partnership that will likely be second-to-none in developing and preparing outstanding men and women capable of embracing the challenges in the hydropower industry for years to come,” Etzel added.

Sonya Reiser, an engineer with Knight Piésold Consulting, adds, “Knight Piésold Consulting is supporting the Hydro Research Foundation by providing an internship opportunity to a fellowship recipient as a means of combining academia and industry. The hydropower-specific focus of the foundation affords Knight Piésold the opportunity to immerse a graduate-level individual in project design work under the guidance of licensed professional engineers. Knight Piésold understands the importance of a real-world application to academic studies and looks forward to providing and receiving the benefits of this outstanding mentoring opportunity.”

In addition, the foundation believes the fellowship program is exposing professors and universities to the needs of the hydropower industry and that this work is reversing the challenges of attracting new entrants by staying in front of universities with industry’s research needs. Deborah Linke, executive director of the foundation, said, “The early indicators of this program are quite positive and are starting to really attract the attention of our industry. We feel that through continuing our work and expanding our programming efforts to undergraduates and vocational students, we can continue to meaningfully address both research priorities and workforce needs.”

Launching careers

Mark Raleigh, an alumni fellow from the University of Washington who worked on climate change research during his Fellowship has since taken a position as a post-doctoral researcher at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., summarized his experience as a fellow well.

“Being an HRF fellow has been an eye-opening experience for me. It has allowed me to see the bigger picture of hydropower systems through the work of the other fellows, through field trips, and through industry partnerships. This all has allowed me to place my specialized research in the context of managing a complex, yet invaluable renewable resource. A Hydro Research Fellowship is a golden ticket to advancing hydropower research and an excellent launching pad for a career in the field.” Raleigh is now continuing to advance the industry’s knowledge and is one example that this experiment is now a proven success.

The foundation continues to see success stories of fellows being matched up with career placement opportunities, or the ability to continue hydropower related research within their universities. One of the most recent examples was Sean Brosig who was a fellow doing research at Oregon State University. During his Fellowship he had the opportunity to do an internship with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Hydroelectric Design Center. Following his internship he was hired on full-time after graduation and is now an employee with them. To continue to foster these positive outcomes, the foundation encourages members of industry to contact the Foundation for the most current list of graduating fellows in order to find them opportunities in the field.

The 2013 class of Hydro Research Foundation fellows.
The 2013 class of Hydro Research Foundation fellows.

New programs ahead

The foundation has led the effort on the fish-friendly turbine that has since been moved to Alden Laboratories and is being tested. The foundation has sponsored hydropower contests at universities and high schools for designs, and conducted research on the Malad Trout-Modeling Project. The Trout-Modeling project involved the Idaho Power Company developed a model with Oak Ridge National Laboratory to assess the flow-related impacts of IPC’s Malad River Hydroelectric Project on rainbow trout. As a non-profit, charitable foundation, the foundation was able to serve as the mechanism to fund this environmental research. The foundation also supports the hydropower component of Project NEED. Project NEED works with K-12 students who are tomorrow’s consumers, voters, educators, and leaders. They NEED to understand energy issues. The NEED (National Energy Education Development) Project was designed to ensure they will. The foundation is also currently conducting an educational research project in conjunction with Oak Ridge National Laboratory and DOE called the Small Hydro Collaborative. This project’s aim is to identify ways to reduce the time and costs of installing small hydro and provide a web portal for developers to easily find information.

The next goal for the foundation is to solidify sponsors to help sustain and develop the fellowship program and other student awards like an under-graduate scholarship or vocational training opportunities. In order to grow these programs, the foundation needs underwriters to advance the workforce development projects. Now that the foundation has a proven track record of developing successful programs it is imperative that each organization steps up to support the foundation to sustain programs beyond the fellowship program. One opportunity to sponsor the foundation is the annual Hydro Celebration Dinner preceding HydroVision International, where sponsors can network with the fellows, academia, and the supporters of the foundation. The foundation also works to pair fellows with internship opportunities. If your organization would like to participate in the Hydro Celebration Dinner or has an internship program, please contact Brenna Vaughn ( to participate or organize an internship for a fellow.

The answer to the question posed at the beginning of this article truly was, “Yes,” we can mitigate the aging workforce using dynamic and creative approaches to attract and retain new members of the hydropower community. The Hydro Fellows program is doing just that and is poised for a future of continuing the same results.

Brenna Vaughn is program director for the Hydro Research Foundation a US-based nonprofit working in research and education

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