Jesse Thornburg: Graduating Researcher of the Hydro Research Foundation

Editor’s Note: This is the most recent in a series of profiles provided by the Hydro Research Foundation that highlight potential future members of the hydroelectric power industry and their accomplishments.

The Hydro Research Foundation is actively supporting graduate students to conduct research related to conventional and pumped storage hydropower.  These students are funded through the Department of Energy’s Water Power Program and industry partners through a two-year $1 million dollar grant.

After studying mechanical engineering, media, and robotics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Jesse Thornburg worked as a mechanical engineer for iRobot, where he designed metal and plastic parts and developed validation tests for mobile robots, including the Roomba robotic vacuum and the SUGV military EOD-disposal robot. After 18 months with the organization he left in hopes to more fundamentally help people with his work. This passion is what drew him to hydropower and to Africa.

Thornburg moved to the Democratic Republic of Congo to serve as the sole practicing engineer for World Relief, an international non-governmental organization focused on disaster relief and development. Before he arrived, the broken 1929 hydro plant he was to refurbish was taken over by the M23 rebel army. When the area was safe enough, he entered their territory and met with the rebel leaders. In the following months, he developed a plan to rebuild the hydro plant once security returned. Since this work, he has developed new hydropower projects in neighboring Rwanda while also supervising a 450 kW project that feeds the Rwandan national grid. The thrill of lighting dark places from a natural source drew him to hydropower, and he wants to help grow the field of hydropower.

Thornburg has been working with advisor Bruce Krogh to research the addition of micro hydro components to East Africa’s modular grids.

Writes Thornburg:

A key advantage of hydropower, when compared to the plethora of renewables available today, is its reliability and ruggedness. Hydropower, and especially pumped hydro, can be selectively generated at times of greatest demand, but too often developing world communities lack the power capacity, storage tools, and management techniques required to meet the region’s needs. In East Africa, where I have worked in hydropower for over a year and a half, diesel generators fill the gap left by the limited hydro and solar sectors. Wood fires are still used almost exclusively for cooking, for local industries like brickmaking, and sometimes for instrument sterilization at rural hospitals — even in locations where high voltage lines run right overhead, connecting larger cities but skipping the villages in between. The region needs more power, but the greater need is improved management and distribution of existing renewable energy sources, of which hydro is the largest and most developed. In the remote areas that will not receive national grid access for many years, hydropower must for the present be distributed through microgrids.

While many sources of clean energy exist in Africa, hydro is by far the most reliable and most established. Hydropower, and especially pumped hydro, can support intermittent renewables like solar and wind energy to ensure that power is available at times of demand. My research will investigate and test how SCADA and human-in-the-loop control techniques can enable optimized operations of hydro plants in parallel with different energy sources and other hydro plants, all feeding into locally-controlled modular microgrids. Of special concern for controls purposes will be the times of day when other renewable energy sources are unavailable. Sensors to detect light, heat, wind speed, etc. will feed into Remote Terminal Units (RTU’s) and inform the control system when hydropower is needed and in what capacity. Other sensors will monitor the hydro and electrical operations to warn the operators, for example, when there is a danger of arcing.

The research will focus on efficient electrical control and distribution of hydropower, and for these functions the microgrid is essential in the developing world. The National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) writes, “microgrids are seen as a critical component of grid modernization, enabling more reliable electrical distribution networks and encouraging local energy production.” Conventional and especially pumped hydro are key tools for local energy production, especially in areas where more advanced production techniques have not yet penetrated. Pumped hydro, NREL points out, is “the lowest energy cost storage technology,” which makes it the optimal technology for filling power production gaps left by intermittent renewables.

The research will consist of two major phases: (1) design and optimization of a modular microgrid, and (2) implementation of a hydro-powered microgrid.

Jesse has been working with mentors, Jay Anders with Black & Veatch and Norman Bishop with Knight Piésold Consulting. Upon completion of his masters, Jesse will be continuing on to a PhD program to continue this valuable research.  To connect with Jesse or learn more about the Research Awards Program please email or visit the website


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