Using data to predict the future of hydropower

Fascinated since childhood by the power of water, post-doctoral researcher Ritesh Patro studies resource management in Arctic environments, focusing on hydropower. Working with issues related to water, energy and the climate is driving the enthusiastic scientist forward in his career. His dedication to a sustainable and less carbon-intensive future has ultimately led him from his native India to the University of Oulu.
Ritesh Patro’s recent project is focusing on improving the existing hydropower in the Nordic countries. Collaborating with his Swedish colleagues, he is investigating how to make existing hydropower more compatible with the EU’s sustainability goals.

A good opportunity to collaborate across the Arctic region and to broaden expertise

When post-doctoral researcher Ritesh Patro thinks back to when he first arrived in Oulu in 2020, he admits it was not the best time to start. It was the darkest and coldest time of the year. In addition, he was met with the challenges of remote working due to Covid restrictions. Eventually he learned to enjoy the variation in the seasons, the continuous light or dark, and especially the northern lights. For Patro, the well-maintained cycling routes and Finnish sauna are also some of the benefits of living in Oulu.

The drive for international mobility brought the Indian to Finland. After completing his doctorate at the Polytechnic University of Milan, he was looking for opportunities to advance his academic career in Europe or the United States. When a postdoctoral position in the Water, Energy and Environmental Engineering research unit at the University of Oulu popped up in EURAXESS, Patro decided to apply.

Patro describes the position funded by the Arctic Interactions and Global Change initiative as a good opportunity to collaborate with colleagues across the Arctic region and as a platform to broaden his expertise.

Ritesh Patro (left) and his research group at Muhos hydropower field 30 kilometres east of Oulu.

Water, energy and climate

The scientist focuses on hydropower issues and river management in the Arctic and Sub-Arctic regions. For example, monitoring and modeling river freezing conditions to improve the management of hydropower infrastructure is one of his research topics.

Patro has been consistent in his dream to work with hydropower. He goes where he sees opportunities to develop himself further. Geographically, he has worked with datasets from places ranging from India and the Alpine regions in Italy to the Arctic regions and even Kenya. Still, most of his work is done from behind a desk.

“I have little field work. We prefer the use of open access data. We rely mostly on remote sensing-based methods. Generally, national operators provide lots of data that we can use, but sometimes specific data from a site needs to be collected, for which we use drones,” he says.

On a larger scale, Patro works with something called the water-energy nexus. A nexus approach identifies the interactions among the water and energy sectors to better understand the synergies and trade-offs involved.

“The term includes everything that relates to water and energy: hydropower, thermal power plants, irrigation, pumping, drainage, and water usage,” he lists.

This is a lot to uncover, and the issues surrounding the topic are highly interlinked.

“One of my research questions is how to predict water availability in future scenarios with models and how to better operate hydropower in those conditions. This is to investigate resilience to the increasing uncertainties from globalisation and climate change. Climate influences water availability, the melting of glaciers and snow, and the availability and demand of energy. Therefore, it is crucial to grasp what we are doing differently now, compared to decades ago,” he continues.

Unfortunately, Patro is not able to address all the challenges at once. He points out that models are based on assumptions about the climate and the stakeholders.

The changes happening in the climate are reflected in the river. Photo: Pixabay

Climate change puts pressure on hydropower

It has been predicted that, by the end of the century, a large percentage of glaciers in the world will melt. Climate change and the melting of glaciers have severe consequences. Patro mentions how the breaking of a glacier led to flash flooding and landslides in India (the Chamoli glacier burst in 2021) and how a glacier collapse in the mountains of Italy (the Punto Rocca glacier in 2022) caused damage and even casualties. The Himalayan glaciers are also melting. All of this is reflected in river flows.

“In the short term, let’s say from 10 to 20 years, the melting will result in more water in the rivers downstream. Longer term, when the glacier has melted or snow accumulation has reduced, the annual variation of water availability for hydropower and agriculture changes drastically. Hydropower operations need to be completely altered to work in the new conditions. In addition, higher temperatures change the energy demand, which increases pressure on the rivers,” Patro explains.

Even though it is a complicated set of challenges to tackle, Patro likes to find something good in everything.

“Governments are noticing the situation and policies are being made to reduce emissions. We’re yet to see how the policies get implemented on the ground level. It takes time to see the results. But governments are investing in monitoring and technological solutions as a collaborative effort. That’s what humanity is all about: when there’s a crisis, everyone tries to find a solution,” he says.

Sometimes Patro and his team use drones to gather information. A drone survey setup is visible in the left corner. Ground control points (centre) were placed at the survey area to map it with better precision.

Hydropower raises questions

A debate is going on about the effects of hydropower on the environment and local ecology. Hydropower is a reliable source of low-carbon electricity. Patro names storage capacity, flood control and flexibility as some of the main benefits of hydropower. Hydropower makes it possible to utilise other intermittent renewable sources, such as solar and wind.

“In my opinion, the benefits are quite high compared to other renewable energy sources. Hydropower has strong potential for development. The energy crisis has showcased how it brings energy security to the energy system. By combining hydropower with other energy sources, we have more green energy,” Patro says.

However, hydropower is dependent on nature’s water cycle. Precipitation changes from year to year, causing instability in the availability of water and electricity. Also, hydropower may disrupt river connectivity and wildlife habitats. In some cases, it can cause changes in the quality and temperature of water in reservoirs and streams. These changes may harm the ecosystem. Trade-off analyses and adaptive solutions are needed. However, one point of view can easily go unnoticed.

“Hydropower structures have important cultural heritage. There are generations who saw the construction of a dam, and younger generations have it as a natural part of their lives. Environmental change is different for everyone. I’m not an expert, but I’ve started working with cultural heritage and societal issues. There are a lot of issues related to hydropower that need to be solved on a different stakeholder level,” he suggests.

Patro knows this from first-hand experience. In his native India, he grew up near Hirakud Dam, the longest earthen dam in the world. The huge structure inspired the scientist’s whole career.

“I have a lot of memories of the dam, and it always fascinated me as a child. And that interest has kept me doing research. The deeper I go, more and more I find issues that could be addressed,” he says with a smile.

Patro emphasises that there are a lot of aspects in hydropower that one could study.

“You need to find your question, the one that gives you the purpose for your research and keeps you intrigued enough that you’re always in love with your research. For me, it’s the sustainability of hydropower,” he says.

Text: Aino Soutsalmi

Photos: Ritesh Patro

Ritesh Patro

Post-doctoral researcher, Water, Energy and Environmental Engineering

Current residence: Oulu, Finland

Best thing about his job: Working with hydropower (a keen interest since childhood)

Recommends a career in hydropower research to: Someone who can ask the right questions

Hobbies: Tennis, squash, sauna, hunting the northern lights