For many Americans, the term “hydroelectric power” conjures up images of massive concrete structures such as the Hoover Dam on the Lower Colorado River, or Washington’s Grand Coulee; and indeed it is these kinds of monumental edifices that contribute to our country's electrical energy needs. But an Oregon State associate professor in mechanical engineering, Kendra Sharp, is focusing on a considerably smaller-scale approach to generating electricity: micro or pico hydropower.
Micro hydropower systems use energy from stream flow and other natural waterways. As Sharp explained in a recent interview, “This is not high tech; it’s pretty basic fluid machinery.” And yet the technology has the potential to improve energy accessibility all around the world.
For now, however, Sharp is focusing on expanding its use in Pakistan, a country where according to some statistics more than 50% of the population has little or no access to power because they are off the energy grid. But the need isn’t necessarily limited to remote areas. “Even for people on the grid,” she noted, “there is a power shortage. In Islamabad, for example, the power goes out in 1-hour outages four times a day.
A precursor to micro-hydro, this waterwheel has been in use for decades to run a grain mill.
“Micro or pico hydropower can be installed off the energy grid,” she continued, “and in the developing world that’s where the applicability comes in. Regardless of whether or not you have access to the grid, if you don’t have power, a way to get it is with local stream flow.”
Sharp’s efforts in Pakistan began in 2010 when she spoke at a conference in Rawalpindi about her work on micro hydropower and how its use in that nation could be expanded.(Thanks to the German aid organization GTZ, the government, and other private foundations, an estimated 200+ installations are already in place in northern Pakistan; but opportunities for additional installations throughout the country abound.) She, along with OSU Civil and Construction Engineering associate professor David Hill, subsequently obtained National Science Foundation funding to establish a micro-hydropower research collaboration between Oregon State University and Pakistan’s National University of Science and Technology (NUST).
Local village millhouses.
Glumac, a Portland-based design firm specializing in sustainable solutions for the built environment, is also supporting her efforts in Pakistan through a recently awarded Glumac Faculty Associate in Sustainable Technologies fellowship.
Sharp’s work is also providing opportunities for graduate students. Mechanical engineering PhD student Thomas Mosier, for example, is contributing to the project by developing an assessment tool to determine an area’s potential for micro hydropower based on its climate, precipitation, and stream flow data. Beyond Pakistan, other areas particularly well-suited to using this power source include Nepal, Afghanistan and other South Asian countries.
Sharp's interest in sustainable energy engineering has resulted in an international collaboration focused on increasing the world’s access to resources. And her commitment to finding and implementing solutions appeals strongly to students who are interested in global outreach. Members of her research group not only develop essential engineering skills but also have an opportunity to apply their learning toward the common good.
She mentioned that students’ increasing interest in sustainability and outreach is catching the attention of international organizations and giving students a chance to get out and get involved.
“It is very attractive to students to work on global development right now, particularly renewable and sustainable energy,” she said.
View Sharp's Spring 2012 TedX Talk at OSU, in which she discusses aspects of her work in Pakistan.