The National Hydropower Association (NHA) will be holding its industrywide Clean Currents 2022 trade show and conference the week of October 17 in Sacramento, California. Marla Barnes, NHA’s vice president of membership and industry engagement, gives us a preview of what makes this event, run by the industry, for the industry, unique and valuable. 

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Hydro Leader: Please introduce NHA. 

Marla Barnes: NHA is the national trade association in the United States that focuses on championing waterpower in all its forms. We have three main missions. First, we advocate for the waterpower resource with Congress, policymakers, and wholesale electricity market designers, pushing to get tax credits, stronger certainty in licensing, inclusion in wholesale electricity market design, and so on. Second, we connect employees of our more than 280 member organizations with other waterpower professionals to create forums for learning from each other, doing business together, and networking. The national and regional events we offer are one important way we do that. Third, we inform not only our member organizations, but the industry at large on both policy and technical developments, helping them understand why these developments matter to them and their work. We do that not only through our online POWERHOUSE media platform but through our entire NHA committee and council structure. 

Hydro Leader: Please tell us about NHA’s Clean Currents conference and what makes it distinctive among other industry conferences and events. 

Marla Barnes: Several years ago, the NHA board of directors decided it was crucial that we hold our own conference and tradeshow, allowing the industry to control the format and content and enabling 100 percent of the revenue to be reinvested into industry advocacy, rather than going to a for-profit private events company. There are lots of conferences and trade shows out there, but there are two things that make Clean Currents unique. First, it’s for the industry, by the industry. It’s not run by a private company; rather, it’s organized with extensive input from NHA member organizations, exhibiting companies, and others. The industry as a whole provides ideas about content, the most useful and productive setup for the exhibit hall, and speakers and activities. Second, Clean Currents provides an opportunity to raise funds for the work of NHA. The board recognized that to do the work that it was asking the association to do to move waterpower forward, there needed to be more available capital. Those additional funds can’t always be raised by increasing membership dues. We saw in the new event an opportunity to create nondues revenue that would go right back into the association. If a company is going to participate in an event, it makes sense to choose an event at which that investment goes straight into the work of advocating for the industry. 

Hydro Leader: Please tell us about the format and size of this year’s Clean Currents, and how it compares to last year’s inaugural event. 

A roundtable-style session at Clean Currents 2021.

Marla Barnes: One unique characteristic of Clean Currents is that instead of having a traditional exhibit hall and then holding conference sessions in a completely different part of the building, it has an integrated community feel. In some conferences, people leave the exhibit hall, go to the sessions, and sometimes never get back to the exhibit hall. To avoid that, we replaced the exhibit hall with a central location where everything happens, which we call CC Central. 

CC Central includes both the exhibits and the areas for content. The purpose-built session areas surround the exhibits. Right in the middle of CC Central is an area called the Innovation Power House. We’re trying to get people to think creatively about technology and applications from other industries—for instance, advanced manufacturing, robotics, and artificial intelligence—that have the potential for adaptation by the waterpower industry. There are many technologies out there that could create phenomenal efficiencies and cost savings for this industry. 

Once attendees enter CC Central, they can do anything they want. All attendees have access to everything: lunches, conference content, and so on. The integrated space also creates the opportunity for people to pick and choose the things they want to participate in and to do so in a time-efficient way. We tried that approach at the inaugural event in Atlanta, and the attendees responded favorably. There are certain logistical challenges to holding conference sessions in the same space as the exhibits, and we’re learning to address those based on the experience of the inaugural conference. 

Hydro Leader: Does the conference this year focus on specific themes? If so, how did you generate those ideas? 

Marla Barnes: We have a robust content development committee made up of about 50 industry professionals, including asset owners, service and product suppliers, project developers, technology developers, regulators, and employees of government agencies and nongovernmental organizations. In the course of their everyday work, these people see and hear the issues and topics that people are struggling with or that people need more information about. This drives the content of the event. 

The other thing that is unique about Clean Currents is that instead of organizing the session rooms by tracks of content, they are organized by learning format. We all don’t learn the same way, so we offer a variety of formats. For example, we have an area called the roundtable dialogue room, in which there are no formally designated speakers. There is a facilitator who leads an informal discussion with the attendees about a particular topic, such as the supply chain challenges caused by the COVID‑19 pandemic and high gas prices. We also have more traditional formats, such as classroom presentations. 

Another useful format is the meet and greet, which we hold in the Innovation Power House. It’s an informal setup: Attendees stand around a presenter, who is standing next to a kiosk. The presenter is basically interacting with attendees via short snippets of content. The six host utilities of this year’s Clean Currents will be presenting in that area, specifically by sharing their investing plans for the next 5 years. For example, the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) is planning to do modernization, rehab, dam safety work, environmental enhancement, and a variety of other projects. Clean Currents is the only event I know of offering this valuable insight from asset owners. Leaders at the utility will share an overview of its investment plan, and the team of people who will be working on those projects, including procurement, engineering, or environmental issues, will be there, too. 

Hydro Leader: What kind of audiences do you expect at Clean Currents, and how do you develop content for them? 

Marla Barnes: In addition to the content development committee and an exhibitor advisory committee, we have an overall steering committee made up of individuals from NHA member organizations. That group guides us on the content that various types of professionals in the industry are looking for. For example, a CEO or executive is looking for something different than an engineer. It’s a little flippant to say we’re trying to do something for everybody, but we are trying to be thoughtful about the learning needs of specific segments of the sector. One of those audiences, of course, is the decisionmakers, whether at the executive level, the engineering level, or the plant operations level. The more we learn about their needs, the better we can make sure that the Clean Currents event fills those needs and thus attracts those decisionmakers. At last year’s Clean Currents event, 39 percent of all attendees were leaders, decisionmakers, or influencers within their organizations. We expect that same kind of audience this year. 

Hydro Leader: What should every hydro industry professional know about this event? 

Marla Barnes: The commitment that we’re seeing to this event from the six host utilities—the Bureau of Reclamation, the California Department of Water Resources, Northern California Power Agency, PG&E, Sacramento Municipal Utility District, and Yuba Water Agency—is really remarkable. Together, they own a significant portion of the hydropower in California. In the general session on the morning of Thursday, October 20, executives from each of the host utilities will be sharing their views about the future, their challenges, and the opportunities they see. By coming to Clean Currents, whether as an attendee, an exhibitor, a sponsor, or a speaker, you’re going to have an opportunity to learn about the future and where we as an industry can fit into the drive to a clean energy grid. Hydro has a great future, and it’s a great industry to be working in, especially if you’re just starting your career. 

We hope that the enthusiasm about the importance of the industry and the sector will really grow in Sacramento. We encourage people to come and be a part of it. 

Marla Barnes is the vice president of membership and industry engagement at the National Hydropower Association. She can be contacted at or (816) 588‑4639.