[IAHR Talks] Interview with Séverin Stähly. Focus on innovations in hydropower

IAHR Talks


Séverin Stähly"The future depends on what we do in the present". Enthusiastic about innovative solutions for climate change-related challenges, Séverin Stähly, a young professional engineer and doctor in civil and environmental engineering with EPFL, is used to working in international, interdisciplinary and scientific environments with people from different cultures and backgrounds. He shares with us his views on natural hazards and innovations in hydropower, energy turnaround, water management challenges and the development of young professionals.

David Ferras, editor of NewsFlash World and vice-chair of IAHR technical committee on education and professional development, interviews Séverin Stähly.

‘No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man’ (Heraclitus). This sentence suggests that everything flows around us but also inside us. Could you tell us a little bit about your professional flow until becoming a doctor in hydro-environment?

When I graduated from my MSc I felt ready to move for my first professional experience in the industry. However, I had a very interesting period at the Water Engineering Laboratory  of the University of Auckland, New Zealand, where I got to know the research environment well. My local supervisor, Dr. Heide Friedrich, encouraged me to go for a PhD. This got me interested in going beyond the MSc. In my opinion, a PhD has to be vocational, curiosity-driven, or else these 4 years can become a very long and tough period in your life. Besides the technical (hard) skills, I also developed some soft skills during my PhD, which are very valuable. 

I was in a very unique situation during my PhD research, I was based at the Platform of Hydraulic Constructions lab (PL-LCH) of the Swiss Federal institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL) under the supervision of Prof. Anton J. Schleiss and my project  (Sustainable floodplain management and hydropower) included stakeholders from the industry. This taught me to be a team player in a framework where flows of information were coming from different sources. Presentation and communication skills are also very important when you go to conferences or when you need to defend your ideas in front of a tribunal. For instance, in my third year of the PhD I had the chance to enrol in the MT180 contest. This is a very interesting challenge where students have to present their thesis in 180 seconds. Last but not least, I had parallel duties during my PhD such as lecturing, which allowed me to deepen my knowledge of French, a language that I had not used since high school. I was also involved in different lab projects, and this gave me the opportunity to do some laboratory work in physical models related but not directly linked to my PhD, providing me with a very valuable perspective.

Dams may have a significant environmental impact on rivers, especially in terms of sediment transport. During your PhD you had the unique opportunity to carry out a large scale experiment where the outcomes of the lab tests could be validated in the real world (cf. EPFL article). What were the main challenges and what did you learn from this experience? 

This was a very fulfilling experience. My colleague Dr. Elena Battisacco carried out the laboratory tests as part of her PhD research, where she evaluated different replenishment configurations. From this assessment she came up with the most effective method. I then applied it in the field and did some numerical analysis. This real-world experiment consisted of releasing an artificial flood from a dam, which meant spilling water and hence losing money for the operator. There were a number of stakeholders involved, namely local and national authorities, the dam operator, NGOs, biologists, civil engineers, etc., and all of them had different interests. Time and resources were limited, so from my perspective I had to focus on what was really important for my research. I invested my efforts on tagging the replenished sediments to analyse their movement during the flood event. This decision brought me to the second challenge, which was how to measure the tagged stones. As I am not an electrical engineer, I had to find some way of designing a large antenna that could record the passing tagged stones. This was beyond the scope of my expertise so it was a great learning experience. In the end it worked out very well and we published an interesting paper. [PDF format]

How was the transition from PhD in academia to professional practice? Was it a sudden transition or did you take a break in between? If so, what did you do during this transitional period?

Civil works in Nam Theun 1 Hydropower plant, LaosI did take a break. I believe it’s an important human need to take a proper break after such an intense period such as the PhD. This break was a bit driven by my prior academic stay in IHE Delft. There, I got to know colleagues from the southern hemisphere, where they deal with many different challenges from those we face in Europe. So during this transition period after the PhD I made a study trip in order to widen my personal and professional horizon. For instance, thanks to an invitation from Pöyry, an international consulting and engineering company, I had the chance to visit the construction site of the Nam Theun 1 hydropower plant in Laos, where several hundred people are working on-site to construct a huge, 200-meter high dam. I was very impressed to see the execution of a project of such dimensions being carried out in the middle of the jungle. Another stage during this study trip was the IAHR World Congress in Panama, where I could present the outcomes of my PhD. Two months later, I took a goods transport boat up the Amazon River, from Colombia to Peru. There I came to understand the importance of how the river links people for trading and travelling. During the three days I spent on this floating marketplace we stopped by countless little villages for which these boats serve as the only connection to other places. Nonetheless, I also realized how humans are often at risk of natural catastrophes and this is maybe what drove me to my current position at Geopraevent.       

Could you explain to us how you’re applying what you learned from your PhD to your current position? Maybe too early to make such an appraisal, but what is your vision in this regard?    I just started a couple of months ago, so this business is quite new to me and especially the context of the Covid-19 pandemic made my start in Geopraevent a bit more silent. Communication and interdisciplinary thinking are crucial skills I developed during my PhD and that I’m already applying in my current position. For instance the MT180 contest, in which I had to present and sell my work in 180 seconds in front of a broad audience turns out to be, to some extent, daily business when you are about to sell advanced technology to clients. In the business of natural hazards you need to deal with local people that perhaps have no technical background and authorities who may sponsor the project, and here in the office we have the IT and electrical engineers who also use their special terms, etc., so I need to adapt my speech to each context. Also a major challenge in this field is that, in general, there is not much awareness for natural hazards until the event happens. Unfortunately, limited money is spent to prevent natural hazards and then when the incident or accident occurs, there is a lot of money available. This is a political attitude that should change because at the end of the day prevention is much cheaper than mitigation. For example, in Holmbuktura, Norway, we have installed two radars (Avalanche radar project) that monitor a hilly slope. Below the slope there is a road which is the only connection to a village. On one side of this road there is the sea and on the other side the slope, which during winter is prone to avalanches. Before installing the radars, the road had to be frequently closed in times of increased avalanche risk. Now, the radars monitor the road 24/7 and are connected to an automatic road closure system (usually traffic lights or barriers). If an avalanche occurs, the road is closed. Another radar that monitors the lower part of the slope checks if the avalanche reaches the bottom or not. If the avalanche does not reach the lower part of the slope, the road is automatically left open to traffic. In any case, road operators receive a message on their phone about the road closure. The operator then can check event data such as location, extent, front speed, time, etc., as well as a live camera to analyse the occurrence as it unfolded. If an avalanche reaches the lower part of the slope, he/she decides if the road needs to be cleaned before being opened again. Compared with a protection gallery, this is a soft and cheap solution that enhances security while providing a great monitoring tool for decision making. Generally avalanche radars give the client lots of information about the avalanche activity in regions of interest where they did not have that data before. As an another example I’d like to mention the new automatic avalanche detection system at Bear Pass, Canada, where the client is very happy with the information they can now access (Innovative tech reduces avalanche risk on Highway 37A) after the first season of operation.

Field trip to the Panama Canal during the 2019 IAHR World Congress    The use of hi-tech technology applied to detect, describe and evaluate natural phenomena that are difficult to describe numerically (e.g. avalanches, landslides, debris flows, etc.) is definitely a great opportunity to stay at the intersection of research and practice. What are your thoughts on this? Do you intend to keep your researcher side alive? If so, how could IAHR could help you?

Definitely yes! That’s why I am so happy to have found this job in Geopraevent. This year for instance we planned to present our work at three different conferences – due to the circumstances caused by Covid-19 they have been postponed for one year. We need to keep innovation running and it’s in this interface between research and practice that innovation emerges. My job consists of coming up with the most suitable solution for the client’s problem. So I need to deal first with the client and then transmit his needs to our development team. Each one of these solutions is tailor-made and unique, which makes it a good niche for research. Geopraevent has interesting projects and always tries to apply cutting-edge technology in new situations. A good example is the surveillance of the Weissmies glacier, where we were able to use images to analyse the deformation for the first time. All the stakeholders were positively surprised by the results of this relatively affordable monitoring method. We are currently applying this technology in several projects.

Some of these projects are of course strongly tied to IAHR technical themes. The association has a very broad scope,  topic-wise but also in terms of fundamental and applied research. Therefore I see IAHR as an opportunity to broaden our own scope: on the one hand getting to know better where our technology can be applied beyond the projects we are used to, and on the other hand exchanging ideas with researchers and engineers coming from different perspectives. For instance, thus far we haven’t done a major project in the field of hydropower. In the Alps, dams and water intakes are often in remote areas prone to natural hazards such as rockfalls, avalanches and landslides. Such events can affect the structure itself or in extreme cases produce a catastrophic tsunami (see Vajont dam disaster). In Geopraevent we have readily available technology for the monitoring and detection of early signs of such kind of events.

Have you been in touch with any of the IAHR Young Professional Networks? At what level? 

The PL-LCH laboratory at EPFL, where I worked for my doctorate, is an IAHR institute member and thanks to this, I got to know IAHR at an early stage, being involved in several IAHR conferences during my PhD. Unfortunately though, there is no IAHR Young Professional Network in Switzerland yet. During the World Congresses I attended (Kuala Lumpur and Panama) I took part in the YPN excursions, events and dinners. I believe these initiatives provide a great opportunity for young professionals who are facing similar problems worldwide to exchange, in an informal way, impressions, concerns, ideas, etc. These occasions encourage exchange not only on technical issues, but also in terms of professional development. For instance, at the start of your PhD you may feel a bit intimidated being surrounded by experts, doctors and professors. Then after a while you become an expert too. Talking with IAHR young professionals like myself in world congresses was somewhat of a validation of this personal and professional development.

After the Covid-19 health crisis, which is the next river you are going to step in? 

The first thing that pops into my mind if I take the question explicitly is a steep mountain river transporting a lot of debris. Seriously speaking though, I am looking forward to things returning to normal, hoping this health crisis will leave soon so we can get back to normal business, which in my case is dealing with the natural hazards in hydro-environments and not biological health hazards. 

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