The Dr. Kenneth Henwood Award is the hydropower industry’s highest honor, and each year, the award is presented to an individual who has demonstrated unwavering commitment to the industry.
At the Clean Currents 2023 Conference + Trade Show, which was held the week of October 9 in Cincinnati, Ohio, Alvin Thoma received the Henwood Award.
Thoma remarked after the ceremony, “Receiving the award and spending that day in Cincinnati felt like the warm embrace of many, many people. The glow of that experience has stayed with me ever since, and I hope it always will.”
During Thoma’s acceptance speech, he explained that day itself, October 11, was an important commemoration to his father, commenting, “Receiving the Henwood Award today feels like another way to honor my dad.”
Thoma’s dedication to hydropower is represented by his years of service to the industry, personal investment in its success, and guiding vision of the renewable’s future.
BACKGROUND AND CAREER
Growing up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Thoma would overhear national energy policy discussed at his parent’s dinner parties or even by the pool. His father, who spent much of his career at Oak Ridge National Laboratory as a chemist, was an influence on Thoma’s educational pursuits, as he later obtained his Bachelor of Chemical Engineering, cum laude, in 1979 from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.
After graduation, Thoma began his career in the energy industry. Much of this time was spent with Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) and his work focused on geothermal and fossil-fired power plants as part of the company’s Power Generation department. Years later, Thoma found his way into PG&E’s hydropower systems, where he remained until his retirement in 2021.
While in hydropower, Thoma held several roles leading project management, engineering, construction, relicensing, operations, and maintenance. During that time, he came to understand and appreciate the role that hydropower plays in the energy market and became an advocate for the technology.
According to Thoma, “I came to see these long-established [hydropower] facilities as an important contribution to the energy production needed in California, as well as providing unique kinds of support to the grid (e.g., the ability to produce when needed and back-stop other generation technologies). Visiting all of PG&E’s powerhouses and seeing parts of California that I wouldn’t have otherwise, I came to understand how much the history of hydro and the development of the state are intertwined.”
Operating a large hydro fleet is complex, particularly in California, where energy demands and the drive to ensure a carbon free energy grid is complex. Thoma, who learned much about the challenges water power faces over his career, stressed hydropower’s struggle with public perception, commenting:
“The general public has little understanding of how much hydropower already contributes to the grid while simultaneously providing water supply and recreation opportunities. That lack of understanding and appreciation makes it harder to get support for legislative and permitting changes that are needed for the industry to contribute as much as it can.”
Understanding these and other challenges facing the industry, Thoma’s dedication to the preservation and promotion of hydropower acted as a driving force in helping National Hydropower Association (NHA) select a new President and CEO to ensure that the organization had both a strong leader and future.
In his role as NHA’s Board President, and after countless hours and a demanding search process, Thoma led the committee that selected Malcolm Woolf, NHA’s current President and CEO. Under Woolf’s leadership, NHA has helped positively address hydropower’s public perception with ad campaigns reaching millions, as well as other actions that have contributed to major funding and legislative victories.
Thoma retired from PG&E in May of 2021, and he has remained active in his support of NHA, staying involved in the Executive Committee while also participating in board meetings and NHA’s conferences, such as Waterpower Week and Clean Currents.
In particular, Waterpower Week, which takes place in Washington D.C. each year, was a place where Thoma went for content when he worked in hydropower, remarking, “I got even more value out of the interactions I had with everyone between and after the formal sessions. I came to realize that the outstanding content that NHA provides is what brings us together, but the relationships that are formed here provide even more value.”
This desire to grow the community aspect of water power is embodied in over a dozen community bike rides Thoma has organized in Washington D.C. and cities across the United States, with the first rides beginning in 2016.
Commenting on the importance of these connective points, Thoma said, “I believe that activities like these help form deeper bonds throughout the organization, and they create some connections that wouldn’t otherwise be made, which in turn lead to better communication and cooperation on the meatier topics within the industry.”
Currently, Thoma is taking a break from traveling, but only slightly considering that he and his wife Katie began a ten week and 10,000-mile road trip the day after they retired. In addition, they have traveled internationally, visiting Switzerland, Italy, Spain, Australia, and New Zealand. In 2023, Thoma traveled almost a third of the year. Other retirement activities include learning how to play bass guitar and working on a continuous string of house projects.
“Retirement is great,” Thoma remarked, “and I’m grateful to be able to enjoy it comfortably.”
ABOUT THE DR. KENNETH HENWOOD AWARD
The Dr. Kenneth Henwood Award is presented by NHA to an individual within the waterpower industry who exhibits:
- Dedication to hydropower as an energy technology
- Persistence in the face of institutional obstacles
- Appreciation and understanding of the relationships among project engineering, environment and economics
- A strong commitment for fair dealing and plain speaking
- Uncommon energy, enthusiasm, and excitement as a leading force in the industry
Click here to learn more about the award.