Top 3 Reasons Why Our Researchers Love Water Power (And You Should, Too)

Water Power Might Not Seem Like a Swoon-Worthy Subject, But There Is a Whole Watt To Love About This Steadfast Renewable Resource

Feb. 14, 2023 | By Caitlin McDermott-Murphy | Contact media relations

When Harry first met Sally, neither Harry nor Sally could see what they had. It took years—more than a decade!—for the pair to finally pucker up and admit their love. And if you think Harry, Sally, and sappy romantic comedies have nothing to do with water power—think again.

Water power might not be the stuff of steamy romance novels (even if it is sometimes the stuff of steam), but this renewable resource is the Harry to our Sally, the love we have always had but maybe never truly appreciated.

Take hydropower. It is our reliable best friend. If the lights go out, it is often hydropower that is there for us with light and heat. And though you might not race from your house to go smooch your local facility (in a rainstorm, of course), we think it is pretty romantic that this old-school renewable resource will be the foundation of a future clean energy grid. Clean air, clean water, affordable energy—what is not to love?

And if hydropower is our steady sweetheart, marine energy is the mysterious stranger that gets our hearts pumping. Marine energy, which is energy generated from ocean and river waves, currents, and tides, has immense potential—like a spark-filled first date. The power coursing through U.S. oceans and rivers equates to nearly 60% of the country’s electricity needs. Although we cannot practically harness all that power, we are excited to see how our electrifying relationship might grow.

Need more reasons to fall in love? Good. We have got plenty. This Valentine’s Day, our smitten hydropower and marine energy researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) shared why they fell so deeply in love with water power—and why you should, too. Water you waiting for? Dive in!

The ocean at sunset overlain with the words, "Water you waiting for? Be our valentine."
Photo by Levi Kilcher, NREL; modified by Tara Smith, NREL

You should love water power if…

1. You Love Life As You Know It

“Water is life. It’s interdisciplinary. And it’s the medium for climate change, for better and for worse.” – David Greene, NREL researcher 

“At the heart of it is that I love water. This could be in our nation’s rivers, lakes, bays, and oceans (which make up over 71% of the Earth’s surface). If there is water on this planet, you will find life, even deep in subterranean caverns where there is no light. Although water is integral to life on our planet, we’ve seen historic lows in our nation’s reservoirs and rivers. As such, our need to conserve, protect, and responsibly use our water resources is only going to grow. If we want to enjoy our current lifestyles in the future, we will need to begin treating water as a finite resource.

“Some might think water is renewable, but if we continue to contaminate our water with single-use plastics, chemical runoff, and a drying climate, communities will only become more and more impacted. At times, this challenge can seem daunting, but my contribution to NREL’s work in the water-energy nexus gives me the best opportunity to make an impact, and we can hopefully inspire more change throughout our communities.” Nathan Tom, NREL mechanical engineer

I love water power because it is at the nexus of so many parts of our ecosystems, economy, and way of life. I believe that our future energy systems will rely heavily on the oceanic resources of our blue planet, and it is inspiring to be a part of a team that is pioneering this field of research.” – Levi Kilcher, NREL senior researcher

“Fluidity is a life-giving quality—in us and around us and in many ways. So, how beautiful can it be to interact with the energy of water, waves, currents, and streams to power life-supporting missions while keeping this terrestrial flow of life intact and healthy!” – Jochem Weber, NREL water power program chief engineer

2. You Love Humans—and Humans Need Water and Power

“My work in wave-powered desalination has been the most rewarding work in my 12-plus years at NREL. While tuning our wave-powered desalination prototype at the last deployment, at any given point, someone in the community was probing the team with questions. At the end of the day, access to drinkable water is something that people from all walks of life understand and care about. Wave energy could make a real impact on the lives of people in coastal communities and maritime industries around the globe.” Scott Jenne, NREL researcher

Hydropower is referred to as a guardian angel of the grid because of its immense flexibility to store energy during excess generation and supply it when it is required to meet peak load demands. By supporting variable sources, like solar power and wind energy, it is helping the grid become more stable, resilient, and more financially beneficial for hydropower owners.

Hydropower also provides another lifeline for the grid by assisting during blackouts and maintaining proper voltage levels and frequency that would not have been possible with conventional, dispatchable generation.” – Vivek Kumar Singh, NREL researcher

3. You Love a Good Challenge

“I’ve done work in nearly every renewable technology over my career, and wave energy has both physics and economic challenges that force us to think differently. No other renewable technology I’ve worked on experiences greater variation in energy flux on such short timescales. Combine that with the ruthless nature of the ocean, and you have a really exciting challenge.” – Scott Jenne, NREL researcher

“I love doing research on new, emerging technologies, like those designed to harness wave and tidal energy, because viable configurations are still challenging engineering puzzles waiting for us to put all the pieces in place to make them practical.” – Robert Thresher, NREL researcher emeritus

“I love working across the commercial spectrum—all the way from early-stage marine energy technology design and development alongside labs, universities, and entrepreneurs to century-old hydropower and pumped storage hydropower, focusing on creative siting techniques and technology upgrades.” – Tessa Greco, NREL Strategic Innovation and Outreach subprogram manager and group manager

“We get to work with technologies as old as hydropower and as new as wave energy. We get to think about problems as basic as anchoring systems and as complex as our ocean’s ecosystems.” – Levi Kilcher, NREL senior researcher

“I love water power because when I see the marine energy devices being tested, it all feels a bit science fiction.” – Amanda Morton, NREL project manager

Water power is like a puzzle that we get to work on solving every day!” – Charles Candon, NREL water power researcher

“When we view the immensity and force of a flowing river, crashing waves, or a bore tide in an inlet, instantly we gain perspective. Tackling the challenges of harnessing the power of water in a safe, socially acceptable, and environmentally friendly way offers the ultimate challenge for those considering joining the water power workforce.” – Elise DeGeorge, NREL senior researcher

Learn more about NREL’s work to advance hydropower and marine energy research. And subscribe to the NREL water power newsletter, The Current, to make sure you do not miss a water power update.

Tags: Energy Storage,Water,Marine Energy,Hydropower