Modernizing Hydropower: ECs find opportunity in transition of hydroelectric plants into automated systems

Illustration of a dam, surrounded on each side by trees and grass | iStock / Petovarga / Pop_Jop
iStock / Petovarga / Pop_Jop
Published On
Dec 15, 2020

Humans have been harnessing water power for more than 2,000 years. Hydropower, the oldest source of renewable electricity in the United States, dates back to the 19th century. Today, it provides about 7% of American energy generation, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. When it comes to renewable electricity, hydropower rises to 38%.

Only two states, Delaware and Mississippi, don’t use hydropower for electricity, while Washington state receives a staggering 74% of its power from its rivers. Most hydropower is derived by converting the potential energy of water from a higher elevation to kinetic energy as it is discharged at a lower elevation, explained Jess Yenter, project manager at global power management company Eaton, Cleveland. Turbines and generators convert that kinetic energy into electricity.

The facilities that generate hydropower are aging, and new construction is limited. Most of the thousands of U.S. dams date back a half-century or more. Therefore, the effort today is to modernize and digitize the power-generation systems and to provide automation and communication networks to meet 21st century power needs, Yenter said.

This is driven in part by new regulation and funding. The Department of Energy’s Water Power Technologies Office, for example, is investing in upgrades to federal facilities. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission requires that hydro facilities meet more recent North American Electric Reliability Corp. standards, which has helped accelerate renovations and upgrades. Consequently, many plants are adding sophisticated automation systems, connectivity and networking and are addressing cybersecurity concerns.

Hydropower systems are being modernized for other reasons, as well, including an aging workforce. As experienced operators retire, Yenter explained, “new hires are often more familiar with digitalized and automated power systems.”

Eaton provides engineering and design, panel manufacturing and site integration, manages modernization and digitalization projects and works with local contractors.

Automation is helping these systems become more reliable and efficient. Traditionally, operators used to walk around a facility taking readings before they started each unit. Speed, voltage and water flow were adjusted manually. Early automation consisted of relay logic, requiring numerous electrical relays to provide equipment logic functions. Plants typically incorporated hundreds of relays, which required massive amounts of interconnecting wiring and many potential failure points. Today, many plants rely on programmable logic controllers and automation systems, enabling teams to have the data they need at their fingertips to operate their systems from a safe distance.

Another trend for hydropower systems is installing multifunctional devices, Yenter said, where one digital box provides control and information about multiple processes and the condition of equipment. By capturing information in real time, plant management can use digital forensic work to identify faults and help companies understand the condition of their plant and their machines.

“That’s more important than ever amid the energy transition and a more variable energy supply. Hydropower systems, through sophisticated control and automation systems, can provide power when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing,” Yenter said.

Integrating isolated systems

On a global level, the fragmentary nature of hydropower generation has a long history, said Pier Vittorio Rebba, technology manager for power and water at ABB Energy Industries’ in Italy. Like Yenter, he found that older plants around the world are semi-automated, with many relays with different purposes and key performance indicators.

This fragmented approach has required a number of operators at a single plant to manage the many systems, which means no one has a full picture into the data or can detect inconsistencies. This can lead to higher maintenance costs and overall reduced efficiency of the plant.

ABB Ability distributed control systems, which are used at more than 700 facilities worldwide, enable management and visibility of plant control processes on-site and remotely, Rebba said.

The remote locations of many facilities further drives the need for better automation and data access, he said. Companies are focused on reducing cost and risk while improving reliability. The drive to become more sustainable and efficient also plays a role in automation demands, while hydro plant operators understand that maintenance is a big area for improvement.

Intelligent maintenance

With very few greenfield plants in the works, it is necessary to get the best out of existing installations, Rebba said, as well as to optimize processes and performance by making the most of the information the digital era can offer them. That requires a rigorous maintenance regimen. Strategic approaches to maintenance and asset management have evolved over the years, thanks to the convergence of sensors, improved high-speed communications, and enhanced computing, and that includes data in the cloud, on the edge or in conjunction with machine learning.

Operators increasingly evaluate their maintenance maturity and look for new approaches to optimize assets, increase efficiency and reliability and plan wisely, he said.

Companies are delivering integrated systems to simplify plant management by delivering one common engineering and operational environment for all the systems required. ABB offers automation and electrical equipment, instrumentation and communications, Rebba said.

In the near future, he expects plants to become more autonomous and managed from a centralized remote location without local presence of operators, which calls for “strong improvements across local automation and sensing capabilities such as access control, environmental sensors and fire systems,” he said.

In addition, control system capabilities are needed for power management and global infrastructure, and intelligent support where local services may provide predictive maintenance, emergency handling or remote support and inspection. That offers an opportunity for local electrical contractors and integrators.

For those contractors that already have a maintenance project in hydropower, Yenter pointed out, the potential is there to provide additional services such as modernizing systems and solutions.

“We don’t do any of this in a vacuum. Electrical contractors are very important to us and are helping revitalize aging power generation facilities,” he said.

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