The digitalisation of hydroelectric plants (HEPs) is paving the way for substantial improvements in hydropower generation. Digital technologies increase plant utilisation while reducing operations and maintenance (O&M) expenses. Digitalisation also improves power plant monitoring, fault prediction and optimisation of operations. It helps in cutting costs and improving workforce management. Further, embedding sensors and smart devices in major plant components can increase safety, speed of operation and efficiency. Various new and emerging digital solutions such as big data, digital twin, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and internet of things (IoT) are increasingly being adopted in the hydropower segment for asset management, plant and fleet enhancement, outage management and condition monitoring equipment, among other things.
A look at the key aspects of digitalisation and its benefits for the hydropower segment in India…
Hydropower stations have been facing several challenges in recent years such as an ageing fleet, unpredictable weather conditions and lower rainfall, disrupting the construction schedules. The digitalisation of hydropower plants can play a significant role in maximising the value of the current assets and operating an ageing fleet in a rapidly changing energy scenario. Regular data collection and analysis in HEPs can help identify deviations in plant parameters long before a fault occurs. Further, intelligent systems can be used for historical trend analyses to identify weather conditions.
Digitalisation has a number of advantages for hydropower projects. Some of these are:
Asset management: It helps deliver better connectivity, ensures accurate asset management, enables predictive maintenance, and facilitates efficient operation through data and analytics. It also lowers O&M costs by enabling predictive maintenance, reduces water usage, improves system reliability and stability, decreases the number of unplanned outages and downtime by easily detecting the point of failure, and extends the asset lifetime. Longer lifetimes yield higher revenues and reduce the capex requirement. Digitalisation also optimises reservoir management and extends the operating range of existing hydro units.
Project management: Digitalisation improves project planning and design, making it more efficient and less expensive. Further, improved connectivity and monitoring build a strong case for remote operations.
Integration with renewables: Digitalisation also helps in the integration of hydropower operations with other variable renewable energy sources. The operations of hydropower plants can be closely coordinated through the use of digital systems. This helps hydropower fill the supply and demand gaps in solar generation, and hydropower generation can be ramped down when solar power is available in order to conserve water.
Key digital solutions and use cases
Big data technology can aggregate large volumes of data from multiple sources to facilitate the integration of other energy sources and market data into production planning. It also plays a role in managing the incoming data used in inflow forecasting tools. This can also be used for historical trend analyses to identify weather and market signals that can be exploited in the future for production planning. According to an analysis done by Accenture, when implemented well, efficiency gains from asset analytics can increase revenue by 0.5-1 per cent, while decreasing maintenance capex by 2-5 per cent.
Another key technology is digital twin, which enables the creation of virtual HEP models in real time through AI, mathematical models and the measurement of the operational parameters of the plant, including hydrology measurements upstream and downstream of the plant. A digital twin allows the replication of the operations of the plant in a virtual world in which different modes of operation can be simulated. Being an intelligent model, it learns the behaviour of the plant through input data, and its accuracy improves over time as it is fed more data and measurements. One of the key issues with HEPs is acceptability, given their potential environmental and social impact, which must be adequately identified and mitigated. Creating virtual models of HEPs before their construction using augmented reality could help identify these impacts.
Meanwhile, digital technologies such as AI and ML can utilise insights and trends identified through advanced analytics to shape O&M activities and aid their automation. AI and ML can enable predictive maintenance by learning failure modes and applying fault tree analysis, allowing for reduced regularity of asset health checks and early identification of risks. When paired with simulation, they can help optimise capex and opex allocation.
Further, IoT facilitates real-time asset health monitoring, allowing a more granular insight into asset performance trends. IoT enables the collection of higher frequency time-series data and more accurate historical data analysis. Connected sensors, embedded in assets, are able to measure wear and tear, vibration, temperature, etc., to estimate the overall state of assets and offer real-time alerts, predictive analytics, automatic reporting and visibility.
Moreover, remote monitoring technologies such as drones and computer vision have the potential to revolutionise asset inspection. They reduce the need for personnel to assess equipment condition, particularly in remote locations or in situations with safety risks. Coupled with AI and ML, drones can detect issues without any human supervision. In the construction phase, drones and diving robots with sensors and actuators can enable progress monitoring and high accuracy digital surface modelling.
Another scalable automation solution is a distributed control system (DCS). A DCS enables plant operators to monitor, control and protect equipment while obtaining all the productivity possible from plant assets. It operates via a network of instrumentation, comprising sensors, flow switches, transducers, etc., and provides real-time information to operators, allowing complete control of machines and auxiliaries from the control room (often located at a remote location). With a DCS, no manual intervention is required.
Computational fluid dynamics is another powerful modelling tool that makes internal flow predictions for high accuracy. It detects future flow problems and makes improvements in the turbine components to prevent them. It is used for checking the efficacy of alternative turbine designs in order to optimise them before their final experimental testing.
Meanwhile, digital workforce management solutions can assist O&M staff in routine work in terms of operation scheduling and documentation. Mobile digital solutions replace analog machinery books by enabling the staff to review and input maintenance data directly on site, which is automatically reported to centrally managed O&M platforms, decreasing the administrative workload and ensuring the clarity and efficiency of maintenance processes. SCADA systems are computer based and have real-time control. These systems are used for monitoring and controlling water and power operations at a variety of power facilities. These systems operate continuously and, in many ways, are self-diagnosing, but maintenance and testing of these devices is necessary to ensure system integrity and identify potential failures. Circuits that are used infrequently may require periodic functional testing to ensure they are operational when the need arises.
Concerns about digital adoption
A major challenge for the digitalisation of HEPs is the huge expenditure involved as digital applications require a significant investment, although every solution or tool has a different cost depending on the magnitude. There are some infrastructural challenges in the digitalisation of HEPs as well, such as poor network connectivity between power stations and remote centres, commercial confidentiality (asset owners and operators are potentially unwilling to share information about individual power plants and network infrastructure), and lack of IT infrastructure with gencos.
The availability of skilled personnel is another obstacle. For the design and implementation of digital technologies and the operation of assets and organisations, a higher degree of IT expertise and experience are required to keep up with the rate of digitalisation. Further, cybersecurity threats, lack of interoperable digital equipment, and inadequate and unreliable supply chains for digital equipment could constrain the widespread adoption of digitalisation.
Challenges notwithstanding, the digitalisation of HEPs can improve plant efficiency, reduce O&M expenditure, augment asset life, and improve the safety of operations and reduce emissions, while being commercially viable.