The transition to clean energy, rising energy demand and the need for flexibility when integrating wind and solar power are expected to boost the hydropower sector. The digitalisation of hydropower plants is gaining traction to enhance plant performance by optimising asset management and lowering operational and maintenance costs. Digital solutions access and analyse performance data, providing valuable insights to make timely and informed decisions, ultimately improving operational efficiency. Digital tools can be effectively leveraged to upgrade ageing hydroelectric plants.
Hydropower plant digitalisation offers numerous benefits, including cost reduction, improved safety and enhanced asset management. Digital technology enables real-time monitoring and early fault detection, shifting of maintenance from reactive to predictive, downtime reduction and increased cost savings. Automation enables remote plant operation and analytical software streamlines maintenance activities. Digitalisation also supports hydropower integration with other renewable energy sources.
The International Hydropower Association emphasises the increasing significance of digitalisation throughout the entire life cycle of hydropower projects, including planning, design, construction, operation, maintenance and asset management. Manufacturers within the hydropower industry concur that digitalisation is a pivotal factor in fostering growth within the sector by harnessing the value of data. The implementation of diagnostic services, acoustic monitoring and remote expert support not only enhances hydropower maintenance but also renders it more cost-effective.
Benefits of digital technologies in hydroelectric plants
- Intelligent maintenance: Continuous data monitoring and analysis in hydroelectric plants can detect deviations in plant parameters well in advance, enhancing maintenance optimisation and asset management. It represents an advancement in predictive maintenance, with a focus on real-time analysis of the entire plant’s behaviour, enabling the system to “learn” normal operating modes and detect deviations more accurately with increasing data input.
- Remote operations: The flexibility of remote monitoring and control has allowed for contingency operations, centralised multi-plant control, unstaffed plant operations and access to remote expertise. This approach empowers on-site staff, offers location flexibility and facilitates third-party monitoring. It is seen as a crucial technology for adapting to market changes and optimising equipment reliability, ultimately impacting profitability as the power sector evolves in response to various factors, including climate change and infrastructure ageing.
- Enhanced operational efficiency: Leveraging digital controllers for more precise measurement and control of input and output parameters (flow, pressure, power) can boost the efficiency of hydro plants by a few percentage points. This is particularly valuable in increasingly variable energy systems, where hydro plants may need to operate at different points along their efficiency curve.
- Improved safety: Remote operation, inspection and maintenance through technologies like drones and robots can enhance safety in hydroelectric projects, particularly for inspecting hard-to-reach elements such as dams and tunnels.
- Enhanced project communication: The ability to create virtual models of hydroelectric plants, even before construction, can aid in identifying and mitigating environmental and social impacts. It also facilitates effective communication and interaction with stakeholders through augmented reality technology.
IoT in hydropower
One of the key applications of the internet of thing (IoT) is round-the-clock collection of data, which is accomplished through various online monitoring systems. These systems utilise sensors in various locations to measure parameters such as temperature, pressure and vibration. The collected data is then converted into time-waveform signals, which are subsequently examined by plant operators. This industrial IoT solution streamlines data integration, consolidating fragmented information into a centralised platform via software applications. It enhances utility asset management by organising and forecasting maintenance needs while combining real-time and historical operational data for comprehensive insights.
IoT software solutions offer various tools for data analysis, including rule-based analysis, automating tasks such as vibrational data assessment, advanced pattern recognition for identifying deviations in operational data and machine learning for a holistic view of assets and predictive insights. Augmented reality aids in training and visualising tasks. These tools promote predictive and proactive maintenance. A crucial aspect of industrial IoT involves sharing data globally, facilitated by cloud platforms, enabling quick access via mobile devices and ensuring security through encryption, ultimately optimising hydroelectric plants worldwide.
PLC and SCADA
The automation of hydropower plants involves a combination of discrete and continuous processes, with the objective of streamlining the entire plant operation. Early methods relied on microprocessors and numerous relays, but programmable logic controllers (PLCs) have since minimised reliance on hardwired relays. PLCs are advantageous due to their digital nature, reducing system damage, costs and maintenance efforts. They enable efficient programming to perform various functions, making them suitable for full plant automation, including speed, load, excitation and level control, as well as protection and sequencing. Meanwhile, supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems are essential for hydropower plant automation, enabling remote control and monitoring of plant operations and data analysis. They facilitate both on-site and remote data collection and turbine control, providing efficient management of hydropower plants. PLCs are integrated with SCADA systems to monitor processes, with ladder diagrams used to sequence events. For continuous processes, analog signals are converted to digital inputs, and control algorithms, including proportional-integral-derivative controllers, are developed to manage variables. The combination of PLCs and PC-based SCADA systems is cost-effective and suitable for hydropower plant control and data acquisition, while digital control systems with redundancy offer reliability and cost-efficiency. PLCs facilitate automatic start and shutdown sequences, digital governing, speed and position control, excitation control, protection systems and alarm management, thereby optimising hydropower plant operations.
The concept of “digital twins” involves creating real-time virtual models of hydroelectric plants through artificial intelligence and data from plant operations, including upstream and downstream hydrology measurements. This technology allows for realistic simulations of plant operations and has applications in risk analysis, scenario testing for renewable energy generation, and more.
The primary objective is to enhance operational efficiency by responding to changes and grid requirements, effectively managing electrical power flows and addressing demand fluctuations to ensure grid stability. Before its full-scale implementation, there is a need for testing operational strategies, likely involving simulations or controlled testing scenarios.
Moreover, real-time data from the plant can be harnessed to perform critical functions, including fault diagnosis, condition and health monitoring of equipment, and the overall management of hydropower systems. This real-time data enables timely and cost-effective repairs and maintenance, thereby bolstering the reliability of hydropower generation.
In addition, digital twin technology provides a true reflection of system dynamics. This dynamic modelling allows the broader research community to leverage digital twins as a platform for advancing hydropower systems, encompassing equipment design, control and optimisation. For example, it enables the development of new algorithms and research in these areas to further enhance hydropower system efficiency and performance.
Net, net, in managing hydropower plants, there is a growing need for robust IT infrastructure to handle the data volume, while addressing skill gaps for handling evolving technology is crucial. Cybersecurity is a major concern in the sector with the introduction of complex IT systems. Nonetheless, data-driven asset monitoring enhances maintenance efficiency by detecting issues early, reducing costs and optimising operations, ultimately contributing to increased revenue for hydropower producers through digitalisation.