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Hydropower to the people: Mathematician brings energy to new position

Published Dec. 30, 2020
Headshot of a man with a short beard. He is wearing glasses, a light-gray suit, baby-blue shirt and dark tie.

Mark Parrish, who has a background as a mathematician and civil engineer with extensive hydrological expertise, was promoted to a newly created position in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Parrish will be a liaison to hydropower customers, developing models to meet their power needs. (U.S. Army photo)

In the wet world of hydropower, a former math teacher has just donned a watery mantle to meet the changing demands of one of the oldest sources of energy.

Mark Parrish, who has a background as a mathematician and civil engineer with extensive hydrological expertise, will be a liaison to power customers, developing models to meet their power needs.

“Power customers have become more sophisticated in their power needs,” said Parrish, who was recently promoted to a new position as a “national technical expert” in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s Hydropower Analysis Center. “This position is a way to communicate with those customers.”

Hydropower produced by USACE dams isn’t funded through congress, but through customers who purchase the power. For example, in the Pacific Northwest, the Bonneville Power Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Energy, markets and sells the output of 29 federal hydroelectric dams.

Parrish knows that solar and wind energy are nipping at the heels of hydropower, and that gas has already pulled ahead of the group as an alternate and cheap source of electrical power.

“Big thing for me is, while we build new investments, new turbines – are we building the flexibility into units into the future?” Parrish said. “Customers want to know what we can get out of the [main power units in the dam], want to know if we can provide the services that they want.”

Parrish will answer those questions by developing computer software that will help with long-range planning.

“I love sitting and writing code to solve these problems,” said Parrish. “I get to listen to other perspectives, things I haven’t thought about before, and come up with a mathematical way of quantifying these things.”

Parrish’s newly created position is nestled in the Hydropower Analysis Center, which was established in the 1950s to address the hydropower potential of the Pacific Northwest.

Steve Miles, the director of the Hydroelectric Design Center (which merged with the Hydropower Analysis Center in 2008), said Parrish will be an asset to understanding the most beneficial time to reinvest in hydropower plants.

“Mark has keys skills and abilities to combine turbine efficiency modeling with energy market pricing modeling” – which is a boon for hydropower reinvestment decisions, said Miles.

This includes taking climate change into account.

“Ten or 15 years ago, we weren’t thinking about renewable energy, climate change, different flows, ancillary services – the hydropower we provided was always going to be the cheapest,” said Parrish. “The fact that HAC is getting the support for this research from power agencies is profound – we couldn’t do it without their support.”