Water Resources Civil Engineer | Knoxville, Tenn.
It’s crunch time for Daniel Saint. As part of TVA’s hydrothermal support team, his job is to see that the temperature of the water discharged into the Tennessee River from TVA’s nuclear and coal-fired plants doesn’t affect fish and other downstream aquatic life.
Year round, Saint provides temperature data to TVA generating plants and tests the instruments used to measure water flows and temperatures. But July and August are when things can get really intense.
“By mid-summer, the sun has heated the water up, so this is when we’re most likely to approach our permit limits,” he says.
“Civil engineers create, improve and protect the environment in which we all live. I love that I play an integral part in making sure everyone in the Valley has power.”
Each of TVA’s nuclear and coal-fired plants operates under a state permit that specifies water temperature discharge limits. Those permits protect aquatic life in the river, which can suffer if water temperatures get too high.
Saint and his teammates help TVA power plants stay within permit limits by monitoring water temperature data from automatic sensors above and below the plants and by running computer models to see how different water release schedules would affect compliance with thermal limits. The team then works with the plants to adjust cooling tower use and with TVA’s River Forecast Center to adjust river flows to keep river temperatures where they need to be.
Fish aren’t the only ones that benefit, says Saint. His team’s ability to accurately forecast river temperatures also helps lower electricity bills for Valley residents by minimizing cooling tower use and optimizing hydro generation.
“TVA’s ability to tie the river into nuclear plant cooling operations is unique,” he explains. “Most nuclear plant operators have to work with whatever water is coming down the river. But, at TVA, we’re able to adjust water releases through the hydro plants at our dams. Normally, we save hydro for peaking power. But, if needed, we can run our hydro plants steady to provide enough flow to keep a nuclear plant online that might otherwise have to reduce generation or even shut down to avoid exceeding a thermal limit.”
That flexibility, unique to TVA, pays. “It’s a really great example of how an integrated river system works. We’re able to optimize the health of the river and power production instead of trading them off. The end result is greater value to the public.”
Intrigued by Water
Saint doesn’t have the t-shirt—the one that defines an engineer as “a person who gets excited about things that no else cares about”—but he admits it might suit him.
“I had an advisor in college, Dr. James Cruise, who got me interested in water dynamics,” he says. “Since then, I’ve been intrigued by water’s properties and their interrelationships—temperature, flow, depth—and especially by water’s predictability.”
But it took an unexpected offer of a summer internship in TVA’s hydrothermal group for Saint to see a future in water.
“I went into civil engineering with the idea of following my dad into construction,” he remembers. “I’d just started graduate school when I got a call from TVA about an internship. When I found out it was in the hydrothermal group, it seemed almost too good to be true.”
Saint became a full-time member of the hydrothermal team in 2012. “I enjoy the challenge,” he says. “Each plant and each river section are different so we have to know the ins and outs of each site. Plus, river temperatures are weather based, and we all know how hard it can be to predict the weather.”
Saint also is glad to have a part in advancing the science of river temperature modeling. “Right now, our models are based either on the river’s depth at one point or on the depth and length of the river at points above and below each plant,” he explains. “Our new 3-D temperature models will also look at cross-stream width, which will improve the accuracy of our temperature forecasts. Better forecasts, in turn, will help increase our hydro production and reduce costs at all of our facilities along the river.”
What gives Saint the most satisfaction, though, is knowing that his work makes a difference to nine million people across the Tennessee Valley.
“I love the fact that I have an integral part in making sure everybody in the Valley has affordable electricity. On Sundays, I look up in my church and see those big chandeliers, and it feels good to know that I help make the power for those. I go home to Alabama to visit family, and I see TVA power making people’s lives better there, too. Knowing how many people are impacted by what I do makes my job meaningful.”
When he isn’t focused on river temperatures, Saint is focused on his family. He and his wife Kara enjoy trail riding and canoeing and share a love of gospel music. They have two boys: two-year-old Phillip and 4-month-old Benjamin.
The family is active in their church, which has a Spanish outreach program. Saint, who is fluent in Spanish, translates one or two services a week.
He’s a runner, too. He’s competed in several half-marathons and triathlons and tries to run three to four times a week. “I used to have aspirations of running a 16-minute 5K race,” he says. “But I have a different goal now. I want to be the best husband and father I can be.”
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