How Do We Get to Net Zero?

At the 2022 HydroVision Conference, Hydropower Thought Leaders Discussed the Industry’s Workforce Gaps and Critical Role in the Fight To Curb Climate Change

Aug. 8, 2022 | By Caitlin McDermott-Murphy | Contact media relations

Stuart Cohen carries a pick axe and shovel as he walks on a trail with two other people.
Researcher Stuart Cohen, left, has plenty of ideas for how to build a reliable and resilient renewable energy grid. Many of these ideas, which he presented at the 2022 HydroVision International Conference in Denver, Colorado, include hydropower. Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL

Today, climate terms like “carbon neutral,” “offsetting,” and the oh-so-popular “net zero” are popping up in company and government pledges around the world. But net zero—a tightrope balance between carbon emitted and removed from the Earth’s atmosphere—is arguably the most important. If the world achieves net zero, we could slow climate change.

And one renewable energy powerhouse—hydropower—could play a key role in helping the country achieve this critical balance—if, that is, it can overcome a few challenges, like the need for modern upgrades, more energy storage, and a new, diverse generation of workers.

On July 11, 2022, experts from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) hosted two workshops at the 2022 HydroVision International Conference in Denver, Colorado. Each discussed the challenges and opportunities the hydropower industry will face as the nation strives for net-zero emissions.

“There are still a lot of questions over what role hydropower can or should play in the future U.S. electricity system,” said Stuart Cohen, a senior modeling engineer at NREL and the host for the first panel discussion, Net Zero World Workshop. “There are a lot of knowledge gaps we still need to fill.”

Net Zero World Workshop

To build a net-zero world, the U.S. power grid must evolve. And that shift will require a steadfast, readily available power source to function as a reliable foundation.

During the Net Zero World Workshop, panelists discussed how hydropower and pumped storage hydropower—which can store huge amounts of energy for hours or even days—could fill that role, providing both energy storage and flexible energy that can power and support a renewable energy grid.

“A zero-carbon grid creates many challenges and opportunities for hydropower,” Cohen said. Increased hydropower flexibility, for example, could reduce the grid’s capacity needs. (With more on-demand hydropower, the grid would not need to depend as much on variable energy sources, like solar power or wind energy). And a reduced capacity means lower overall costs, too.

And yet, many of today’s hydropower facilities are decades old and not as flexible or efficient as they could be. With funding from, for example, the recent Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, owners could update their facilities with modern, environmentally friendly technologies, like fish-safe turbines, that can produce more power and reduce operational costs, too.

Workshop attendees also shared their thoughts on which barriers might prevent hydropower from serving a net-zero world. Cohen and his colleagues will summarize these discussions in an upcoming, short, anonymized report, titled Diverse Stakeholder Perspectives on Hydropower’s Future.

Hydropower Workforce Workshop

In the second workshop, called Hydropower Workforce Workshop, panelists from NREL and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Water Power Technologies Office (WPTO) discussed another challenge facing the growing hydropower industry: A significant portion of its workforce is on the brink of retirement.

“We have to invest in and attract people,” said Allison Johnson, the engagement and outreach lead at WPTO. About a quarter of the hydropower industry’s workforce is nearing retirement. At the same time, K–12 schools and undergraduate and graduate programs offer few hydropower-focused programs or courses. While some companies offer training programs, Johnson continued, before they get there “we’re assuming students are not gaining a lot of hands-on experience in hydropower.”

Johnson and her fellow panelists discussed two major barriers to hydropower workforce development efforts. Employers are struggling to find qualified workers. And students have limited awareness of or interest in the industry and its many career paths. The panelists also voiced concerns about the perception that hydropower is not as exciting as other renewable energy fields, but “I know that's not true,” Johnson said.

Johnson also shared a few of WPTO’s current workforce development projects, including science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) curriculum development for K–12 students and teachers, a recently launched Hydropower Collegiate Competition, and a new Clean Energy Innovator Fellowship, which pairs recent graduates with clean energy companies.

Panelist Elise DeGeorge, a senior project leader at NREL, discussed the need for robust collaborations between WPTO, NREL, and industry and academic partners to create new career-development projects and amplify existing successful activities. And, she continued, researchers will continue to collect data on available hydropower jobs, perform workforce analyses, and create educational materials, like career maps, to communicate the many diverse jobs available in the hydropower industry.

“The hydropower industry has careers other than engineering,” said panelist Bree Mendlin, the water power STEM outreach lead at the Hydropower Foundation.

To conclude the presentations, Jeremy Stefek, a water power STEM workforce analyst at NREL, offered a summary of the recently released 2022 U.S. Energy and Employment Report, which provides jobs data across all energy industries. “Overall, 81% of the hydropower industry is reporting hiring difficulty,” Stefek said.

To help encourage more students to get excited about careers in hydropower, WPTO and NREL are also investing in diversity, equity, and inclusion programs to boost the number of underrepresented groups in hydropower jobs.

“When I joined the office about four years ago, we didn't have any active workforce development projects,” Johnson said. “That has changed in the last few years. To tell you why—to put it simply—it’s because people are required for all of the work that we hope to enable.”

That work includes the all-important goal to reach net zero by 2050; without hydropower and without a diverse and qualified workforce, that goal is out of reach.


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Learn more about efforts to build a reliable and resilient next-generation grid, check out the many free, publicly available hydropower workforce development activities available on OpenEI, and find activities, experiments, comic books, and more on NREL’s education page.