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Hydropower’s digital evolution can help stabilize the grid

Digitalization

By Melissa Stark

The world is transitioning to a low-carbon future where renewable resources supply a larger portion of electricity. Many renewable resources, such as solar and wind, are variable in nature, raising questions over how to ensure grid stability.

The issue of variability sets the stage for a revitalization of the world’s oldest and largest renewable energy source: hydropower. At present, hydropower accounts for 58% of the world’s total renewable mix, according to Accenture analysis of 2019 statistics from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).

Despite growing only 2% in 2018, hydropower—specifically, pumped hydro—is an attractive power source for the transition to low carbon. Its dispatchable nature, low levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) and sheer scale means it can play a significant role in balancing the grid against with variable renewable energy sources.

However, for hydropower to live up to its potential, operators must undergo their own transition—in both infrastructure and culture—by modernizing to become a digitally enabled, data-driven operation. Recent Accenture research has identified five themes to help guide modernization: Production Management and Optimization, Asset Analytics, Process Improvement and Automation, Connected Worker, and Cybersecurity.

Production management and optimization

To offset wind and solar variability, hydropower is considered a “water battery,” providing power on demand to maintain grid stability and prevent outages. This process means that hydro operators need to be informed about a range of factors, including solar irradiation, wind, precipitation, natural inflow, reservoir levels and market conditions.

Harnessing digitally improved forecasting through big data and advanced analytics can set up operators for success by aggregating large amounts of data to predict production needs, optimize operational decision making, increase the average sale price of energy and minimize wastage through “discharges.” Operators may reduce lost production by between 5% and 15%, according to Accenture analysis.

Asset analytics

Hydro operators can also benefit from big data and advanced analytics through smart sensors and internet of things (IoT) technologies.

By shifting from reactive and periodic maintenance to a culture of predictive maintenance, operators can draw out insights on asset performance to prevent failure and boost productivity across individual machines and entire power plants. Through collaboration, operators can share data on failures and faults, establishing standards and building more robust data models across the industry.

When implemented well, efficiency gains from asset analytics can increase revenue by 0.5% to 1% while decreasing maintenance CAPEX by 2% to 5%, Accenture analysis shows.

Process improvement and automation

The operation and maintenance (O&M) of hydropower’s fleet of assets can be both labor and capital-intensive. Reducing the cost of O&M activities, and simplifying them through digital automation and improvement, can help hydro stay competitive with other energy sources. The careful implementation of computerized maintenance management systems (CMMS), remote monitoring, artificial intelligence (AI), data analytics and IoT can have applications to resolve a multitude of common challenges. 

Automating O&M processes is particularly important for remote hydro locations, where mountain ranges with heavy winter snowfall and other extreme weather can make it difficult for workers to monitor equipment and remediate issues.

For example, Kansai Electric Power (KEPCO) staff has manually monitored 24-hour surveillance footage for “snow jams,” caused by floating snow in the intake gates of the company’s hydro plants. Through a joint venture with Accenture, K4 Digital, KEPCO, the company developed an advanced computer algorithm with “deep learning” —the first of its kind in Japan—to automate the identification of these jams and reduce the operational burden on staff. The algorithm can detect pieces of snow that are likely to jam the system without manual intervention and avoid the snow jams.

Connected worker

The success of hydropower’s pivot rests on digital technology, data access in decision making, enhanced training and collaboration.

Plants have used already begun to use drones or augmented reality for routine inspection and monitoring services, as well as provided workers with electronic work packages, wearables and mobile devices to aid with setting key performance indicators (KPIs), monitoring worker health and fatigue.

If properly executed, creating a digitally enabled “connected workforce” represents something greater than new tools and equipment. It can change ways of working and permit new operating models, processes and roles, with workers at the forefront of thinking and decision making.

However, implementing digitally enabled operations requires a significant cultural shift in a workforce with limited digital enablement. Hydro operators will have to trust the data and evolve legacy behaviors to adopt a data-driven approach to daily activities and decision making.

This cultural shift is vital and must be supported by effective communication and collaboration with workers to tackle potential skepticism. Training is key and new tools must be relatively intuitive, especially as it means introducing new skills to an older workforce.

Cybersecurity

The modernization of hydropower potentially brings huge benefits, but it also brings potential vulnerability to cybercrime. While traditional cyber threats focus on the theft of intellectual property or data, hydro plants must now protect themselves from cyber-attacks that target material assets and the integrity of physical infrastructure. Getting cybersecurity “right” is essential, as regulatory compliance alone often isn’t enough.

Cybersecurity must be intergraded into the planning, design, construction and operations of all infrastructure. Operators should routinely collaborate with cybersecurity experts to be proactive with threat hunting and resilience testing, in addition to identifying and closing gaps in workforce, processes, policies and systems. Security assessments should be regularly updated, with training for all employees during the digital transition to prepare for a shift in culture and procedure.

Conclusion

These themes are not a one-size-fits-all solution. Every company and hydro plant will have its own modernization path and timeline. An estimated half of all hydro power plant assets will be due for upgrades by 2030, according to data from the International Hydropower Association. And while these infrastructural changes may take place over the course of the decade, cultural shifts can begin immediately.