Hydropower has long provided a flexible, low-cost, and renewable source of power for the United States—since the 1800s, in fact. Even today, in fact, hydropower accounted for roughly half of the nation’s renewable-generated electricity in 2013.  The Energy Department, in collaboration with the national laboratories and industry, is working to advance hydropower technologies by making them more efficient and environmental friendly.

In order to maintain the Energy Department’s commitment to environmental stewardship, one of our labs, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), has been working diligently on a diverse set of tools to better understand and mitigate the impacts of hydropower development on its surrounding environment.

While dozens of environmental impact mitigation projects are currently in varying stages of development, two Energy Department-funded projects are already making a splash! Over the past 15 years, PNNL has developed and improved a small device called the Sensor Fish that measures the physical forces fish experience as they pass through hydroelectric facilities such as dam turbines and spillways.

The Sensor Fish provides researchers with quick, reliable feedback on changes in pressure, acceleration, strain, turbulence, and other forces as the neutrally-buoyant device moves through hydro facilities—providing a close picture of what the fish would experience.

The Sensor Fish, funded in part by the Energy Department’s Water Power Program, represents a big breakthrough for biologists and engineers, who previously relied largely on live fish tests or computer models to study spillway and turbine passage environments. Researchers can now use the Sensor Fish in combination with other available methods to collect better data and help improve the design of more fish-friendly turbines and hydropower projects, improving the survival rate of fish populations and lessening the chance of individual fish injuries.

In another project, PNNL will evaluate a new fish transport system created by Whooshh Innovations. Whooshh developed its flexible tubing system to gently guide fish over hydroelectric dams or other structures. Today, this task is accomplished using a variety of different methods, which can be expensive, time consuming, and add put additional stress on fish and delay their migrations. Although still in the testing and demonstration phase, the system has already received a positive response from the hydropower industry and has been humorously nicknamed the “Salmon Cannon.” In reality, the technology is intended to guide fish around obstacles and in a gentler and quicker manner than other methods. Versions of the system are already in use in some limited applications, including fish hatcheries and commercial fish processing plants.

Over the coming months, PNNL will be working independently to evaluate whether the fish transport system impacts the physical well-being of fish, including physiological and reproductive health. To do so, adult Fall Chinook Salmon that returned to a hatchery will be transported through both a shorter (40 ft) and longer (250 ft) tubing run. Researchers will monitor the salmon for any immediate or long-term health effects and compare them to fish that do not encounter the system.

This partnership between Whooshh Innovations and PNNL will provide an independent evaluation of this promising new technology and generate important information on the efficacy of the current design. The study will also provide Whooshh with information that will guide additional design changes or operational adjustments necessary for safe operation as an alternative fish passage device at an operating hydroelectric facility. Advanced fish passage systems, such as the Whooshh technology, represent promising advancements for reducing the environmental impacts and mitigation costs for hydropower technologies.

The Energy Department’s Water Power Program supports a broad portfolio of projects aimed at responsibly developing and upgrading hydropower facilities throughout the country.