Digitization: a revolution for the hydroelectric sector

One of the first power generation technologies, created in the 19th century, is at the forefront of the digital revolution of the 21st century.

Digital technology has been present in the electric sector since its inception, given its nature of high technological level.  Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition systems (known as SCADA), have been common in power systems for decades. Likewise, the use of advanced computer models for planning, sizing and simulation of generation, transmission and distribution systems is a business-as-usual application of technology in the sector.

Nonetheless, despite the strong familiarity of this sector with “digitalization”, the new wave of innovation, called Industrial Revolution 4.0, promises to bring profound changes to the way we build, design, operate and maintain our electrical systems, going far beyond the simple use of computer models and isolated SCADA systems. There are four main factors that changed in recent years: (i) the increase in computing capacity of the processors (which went from less than 1 MHz in the 1970s to 4 GHz in 2017); ( ii ) the reduction of the cost of these processors; ( iii ) the increase in the capacity of communication networks , which allow for the processors and digital systems to be combined with each other, even remotely, multiplying the processing capacity; and ( iv ) the development of new algorithms for the analysis and management of data (including “artificial intelligence”). These factors created the ideal conditions for an exponential growth in the number and capacity of digitalization applications, which in turn provides immense possibilities in the electricity sector.

The new possibilities are not trivial for Latin-American, particularly considering the hydroelectric sector, which still provides about half of the electricity of this region and is the main source of generation in many countries. Many of these hydropower plants were installed several decades ago, and digitization will be an essential element to rehabilitate, modernize, and maintain them as part of a sustainable and secure electricity matrix. However, the subject is still not widely explored and exploited in the region.

In this context, it is worth asking: What is the difference between what we were doing in the Latin American hydropower sector, and what will come from the hand of digitization? To answer this question, we organized a workshop to exchange experiences with key actors*.

During this workshop, hydropower industry experts showed how digitization has become a powerful tool to improve decision – making processes in organizations that manage hydroelectric plants, helping to optimize water resource management. In addition, case studies showed that digitization is taking a key role, allowing hydropower generation to support the increasing penetration of intermittent renewable energy such as wind power and solar photovoltaic. Digital technologies now have a wide range of application in all stages of hydroelectric projects, from design and construction, using digital simulation tools; to operation and maintenance, incorporating tools such as machine learning through remote monitoring of the condition of the assets. Below we share some of the key trends discussed in the workshop:


  1. Intelligent Maintenance– Constant data measurement and data analysis around the hydroelectric plants will allow to identify deviations in the parameters of the plants long before a fault occurs, allowing to optimize the maintenance, defining stop times well in advance, and optimizing the use of all the assets. This is an exponential evolution of predictive maintenance, since it will not be just a few parameters that are measured in isolation in each equipment (vibration, temperature), but it is the behavior of the whole plant that is analyzed in real time. With these measurements, intelligent maintenance systems will “learn” which are the normal operating modes of the plants, and detect, from this model, the deviations. As more and better data is fed into the system, the model will be increasingly accurate in detecting deviations and faults.


  1. More efficient operation– Hydro plants are efficient systems. More than 90% of the potential hydraulic energy entering the turbines can be converted into mechanical energy by the turbine, and later into electrical energy by the generator. However, digital controllers, can help to increase this efficiency even in a few percentage points. This is achieved with more accurate measurement of the input and output parameters (flow, pressure, power), and with the “intelligent” control systems that allow to achieve more precise adjustments in the regulators. An additional percentage point of efficiency multiplied by 8760 hours per year could be enough energy to justify additional investment in existing plants. These systems will gain a lot of relevance as the operation of existing hydroelectric power plants becomes more variable (due to the increase in solar and wind energy in the systems), requiring them to operate at several points of their efficiency curve.


  1. Digital twins  – this was the term that attracted most attention during the workshop. It refers to the possibility of creating a virtual model of hydroelectric plants in real time through artificial intelligence, mathematical models, and the measurement of the operation parameters of the plant, including hydrology measurements upstream and downstream of the plant.  The “digital twin” allows replication of the operation of the plant in a virtual world in which different modes of operation can be simulated. This type of modeling is something that until a few years ago was unthinkable, given that the hydroelectric systems are so complex that it was only possible to model the hydraulic part making physical replicas at scale (the mechanical and electrical part could be modeled with specialized software). Being an intelligent model, that “learns” the behavior of the plant with input data, its accuracy improves over time, as it is fed with more data and measurements. The applications of this technology are numerous, including the verification of failure modes for risk analysis (for example, of dams), the simulation of future operation scenarios with different levels of generation of other renewables, among others.


  1. Improvement of security. The possibility of remote operation, inspection and maintenance can help reduce the risks in these projects. This is an aspect that has already been applied in several plants, including the inspection of dams, tunnels, and other elements that are difficult to access through drones or robots, or the remote operation of plants.


  1. Improvement in the communication of these projects.One of the key aspects of hydroelectric power plants is their acceptability, given their potential environmental and social impacts, which must be adequately identified and mitigated. The possibility of creating virtual models of hydroelectric power plants (before its construction) could support, on the one hand, the identification of impacts more effectively, and on the other the effective communication and interaction with interested and affected parties, through the technology of augmented reality.


The list can be much longer, and in many cases, imagination and innovation are the limit. However, there is a key point that cannot be forgotten: The human element is the key. You cannot think of digital solutions without thinking about people, because technology will only help people make better decisions. Digitalization proposes not only the adoption of new technologies, but the need to modernize the organizational structures.  The ability of organizations to adapt and, even more, to be proactive in this new era will be essential to guarantee they are not left behind. Therefore, we believe that it is necessary for each organization to define a tailor-made strategy to address the incorporation of digitalization, which allows it to progress in the best way in the modernization of its current infrastructure, in the incorporation of new tools and, most importantly, in the development of technical capabilities to take advantage of all the opportunities of this revolution. Are we prepared?


* The workshop was organized jointly with the International Hydro Electricity Association (IHA), and the Mixed Technical Commission of the Salto Grande hydroelectric complex, at the Salto Grande hydroelectric plant. The workshop brought together more than 130 people, and had exhibitors of the highest level, including electricity companies such as China Three Gorges (CTG), EDF, EDP, Itaipu, equipment suppliers, such as GE, Andritz, Voith Emerson, Brookfield, as well as consulting firms (Hatch and Stantec ). If you are interested in the subject, and want to access the presentations, you can find them here.


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