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An Industry Homecoming at the Inaugural Clean Currents Conference and Trade Show

October 2021 saw the successful completion of the inaugural annual Clean Currents conference and trade show—an event by the industry, for the industry, with its profits reinvested in the industry, owned and organized by the National Hydropower Association (NHA). Its variety of session formats and its focus on innovation and participation made it a highly effective event—and an exciting one to take part in after a year and a half during which most in-person events were canceled due to the COVID19 pandemic. In this interview, NHA President and CEO Malcolm Woolf tells Hydro Leader about the successes of this year’s Clean Currents event and about plans for next year. 

Hydro Leader: Please introduce yourself and NHA. 

Malcolm Woolf: I am the president and CEO of NHA, the organization that champions waterpower as America’s premier carbon-free, renewable energy resource. 

Hydro Leader: You just wrapped up the first-ever Clean Currents conference and trade show. Please tell us about Clean Currents and the concept behind it. 

Malcolm Woolf: Clean Currents is NHA’s new industrywide annual conference and trade show. While the industry has gotten together before, this is the first time that we’ve put together a trade show by the industry, for the industry, and with the proceeds reinvested in the industry. It’s a really big deal for the industry to have put together Clean Currents. It’s something that the industry has been talking about doing for over a decade, so it was exciting to get together in Atlanta for this inaugural event. 

Clean Currents is critical for the industry for a few reasons. First, the industry needs to have a platform that it controls where it can talk about the issues that matter. We know that innovation is happening in all corners of our sector and that folks are hungry to talk to each other, do business deals, and catch up. It is important both strategically and financially for NHA, as the industry association, to be the convener of that event. Right now, NHA’s funding is predominantly dependent on membership dues. Running our own industry event is a way for us to diversify our revenues and hopefully deepen the industry’s ability to engage and provide the services that the industry wants. 

To be clear, NHA will continue to offer additional opportunities for connection in person beyond Clean Currents. Traditionally, NHA’s only national event was Waterpower Week in Washington. With the advent of the new industrywide Clean Currents conference and trade show, we will pivot Waterpower Week to be a policy-focused conference with opportunities to interact with Congress, regulators, and resource agencies in Washington, DC. In addition, we will continue to offer our series of regional meetings, which are 1‑day meetings focused on specific regions across the United States. Registration for these meetings is open to all. 

Hydro Leader: This was probably the first major in-person event that most people have gone to in a long time. Would you tell us what the experience was like? 

Malcolm Woolf: I had been looking forward to Clean Currents as an industry homecoming for months, but even so, I was blown away by the excitement and inspiration I saw there. There was a tangible sense of optimism. I had numerous people tell me that they hadn’t realized they were in a malaise before coming to Clean Currents, but that coming to the event had brought them out of it and that they were now jazzed about the future of the industry. I think that after all the craziness of the COVID‑19 pandemic, folks were hungry to reconnect with old friends and meet new ones. NHA is especially grateful to Georgia Power, which served as the host utility of the event. 

Hydro Leader: One of the intentions behind this conference was to structure it around your stakeholders’ interests and to learn what was important to them and the major things they were working on. What were the themes that emerged from this conference? 

Malcolm Woolf: One theme that we heard loud and clear was to better highlight the innovation that’s occurring throughout the industry. Innovation in wind and solar is easily visible, but there’s been an incredible amount of innovation in the waterpower sector, too. One of the ways we highlighted that was by creating an Innovation Power House at the center of the event. Every half hour, we used that space to demonstrate new technologies and to hold meet-and-greets for attendees with key members of the industry. This area, supported by Georgia Power, GE Renewable Energy, and the U.S. Department of Energy, was highly successful. 

Another area in which we innovated and about which we received really good feedback was varying the formats of the conference sessions. Some of the sessions were traditional classroom presentations in which participants shared presentations, but we complemented those with fireside chats to encourage more discussion among industry leaders. We also had working sessions in a roundtable format in which we asked participants to roll up their sleeves and try to solve issues together. By mixing it up and focusing on solving problems and innovating together, we provided a much more dynamic experience than traditional industry events. 

We also organized the event so everything—exhibits, content, food and beverages, networking—occurred in one space, which we called CC Central. All attendees really liked the community feel this layout created. 

Hydro Leader: What were some of the unexpected results of the event? 

Malcolm Woolf: We were really impressed by the quality of the attendees. The exhibiting companies shared that, normally, they may talk with 20 people before they talk with someone who is a decisionmaker. Decisionmakers came to this event. Numerous exhibitors told us that they were able to do more in sales on the first day of the trade show than they had been able to do for the 2 months previous. Both exhibitors and decisionmakers told us that they made meaningful contacts at Clean Currents and would be back again. That was exciting to hear. 

The other thing I heard was that people were seeing solutions to problems that they didn’t even realize they had. People saw technologies and thought, “Wow, you can do that? That’s something we just thought we had to live with. We didn’t even realize that people were working on innovations to solve this problem.” People were seeing problem-solving solutions and innovation, which is ultimately what it’s all about. 

Hydro Leader: What feedback did you receive from your participants regarding the format and themes of the conference? 

Malcolm Woolf: One piece of feedback was that they really liked the engaged participation. Clean Currents was not intended to be a traditional trade show. We wanted everybody to be engaged in the conversation. We had almost 200 speakers, but beyond that, there were so many problem-solving roundtable sessions and innovation showcases that I think everyone who attended brought something to the conversation. Folks were hungry for that conversation. I don’t think people had been this excited for a conference and trade show in a long time. 

Hydro Leader: Based on this year’s experience, what are some changes that you intend to incorporate in next year’s Clean Currents event? 

Malcolm Woolf: We’re going to have to be bigger, because everybody told me that they’re coming back and bringing more people. That’s exciting, but we are going to have to find ways to maintain the same level of engaged participation. Hopefully, we will be past the pandemic, allowing even more people to attend. We want to get more people engaged, because we want to highlight the innovation in the industry. We also want to highlight the diversity of the industry. We know that the people in the industry don’t look like the industry’s customers. In the engineering profession and the energy field, we’ve got a lot of older men. That is wonderful, but we can gain a tremendous number of insights by showcasing the emerging diversity in the industry. 

One of the programs we unveiled at Clean Currents is Future Leaders of Waterpower (FLOW). FLOW is a new group within NHA that is involved in program design and mentoring and has a great social component. We’re trying to encourage young professionals and people who are new to the industry, regardless of age, to get involved. The group had a happy hour at Clean Currents that was standing room only, which was fun to see. 

Hydro Leader: Is there anything you would like to add? 

Malcolm Woolf: My final thought is about the tagline we’ve been using for Clean Currents, which is that it’s the conference and trade show for the industry, by the industry, with the proceeds reinvested in the industry. Each one of those pieces is critically important. We did a significant amount of outreach to find out what the industry wants, and we’re continuing to do that with the feedback from this year’s event. I encourage folks who attended to provide us with your feedback, because we really want this to be your event. We’ve already started soliciting speakers and suggestions for next year’s panels, so give us your ideas. We are going to be meeting in Sacramento the week of October 17, 2022. Five California hydropower asset owners are the hosts: the Bureau of Reclamation, the California Department of Water Resources, the Northern California Power Agency, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District. We are looking forward to having another industry homecoming in California. 

Malcolm Woolf is the president and CEO of the National Hydropower Association. He can be contacted at mwoolf@hydro.org.