This is the fourth in a series of stories about Clean Energy Champions—real people who are taking action to support or join the transition to a clean energy economy. Their stories illustrate the many ways you, too, can become a Clean Energy Champion.
Gia Schneider remembers being 8 years old at her family’s dinner table in Texas, watching her father draw diagrams showing how carbon dioxide traps heat in the earth’s atmosphere. Her father lived through the 1970s energy crisis and became laser-focused on energy conservation and efficiency—and climate change.
Schneider’s father told her different parts of the world would become hotter, colder, wetter, and drier. She considered what that might mean for places like the Colorado mountains, where her family would go on vacation. When her dad explained that heat trapped in the atmosphere gets moved around by water when water changes from liquid to gas, it sparked her interest in hydropower.
“Climate change is water change,” says Schneider, “so as we think about how to move to a zero-carbon grid, hydro is this resource that sits in a unique way at the nexus of energy, water, and climate.”
After earning a chemical engineering degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she shifted her career focus to the business side of energy. She worked for a few energy companies, started a hedge fund, helped launch a major bank’s carbon-emissions trading desk, and finally, in 2009 Schneider cofounded the hydropower company Natel with her brother. She is the CEO.
While hydropower is one of the most potentially flexible sources of clean energy—it can start up the electric grid after a power outage (a process called black start), regulate voltage, and provide energy storage—it often disrupts river ecosystems. Schneider wanted to reduce the environmental impact of hydropower while making it simpler and more cost-effective.
Clean En∙er∙gy Cham∙pi∙on
/klēn/ /ˈenərjē/ /ˈCHampēən/
1. A person or group that takes action to support or join the transition to a renewable energy economy, with the knowledge that reducing carbon emissions provides daily benefits to every American so they can live happy and healthy lives.
Turbines convert the energy of flowing water into electricity. Natel’s solution is a distributed approach that utilizes an innovative turbine that passes fish safely, which could eliminate the need for costly screens or structures that direct fish away from turbines. Natel iterated through multiple turbine designs; research and development took eight years. To support this work, Schneider applied for numerous funding opportunities through the U.S. Department of Energy Water Power Technologies Office.
Natel received seven awards totaling more than $9 million. Schneider says this funding enabled her company to eventually raise capital to install two hydropower plants and develop a software service that provides analytics and data to manage plant operations. Today this service informs over 4 gigawatts of hydropower plant operations and is ready to scale.
On the surface, it may be surprising to learn that as a Clean Energy Champion, Schneider does not demonize fossil fuels. Rather, she acknowledges the historical trajectory of energy technologies and observes the scientific connection between fossil fuels and renewable energy resources: sunlight.
“The reason we were able to go from where we were 100 years ago—arguably in a very short period—to the level of technology we have today is because fossil fuels are this incredibly energy-dense form of stored sunlight that was put down in the age of the dinosaurs,” she says. “It’s kind of like this gift from the past that helped us free a lot of people from labor on the land, and that meant we had a lot more brains that could come up with all the technology that we have today.
“Fossil fuels are a stepping-stone that lets us go back to harnessing sunlight. The sun is our primary source of energy,” she explains, whether it is used directly in solar panels or indirectly in moving water or wind. “All of it is solar energy, just like fossil fuels are solar energy, just several steps further down the chain.”