Providing Advanced Training for Hydro Plant Operators in Mexico

Mexican utility Comision Federal de Electricidad collaborates with the University of Morelos in Cuer-navaca to offer a master of science program for its hydraulic turbine operators. The first group of 25 students graduated from this program in December 2008.

By Fernando Z. Sierra, Gustavo Urquiza-Beltran, and Jose Manuel Fernandez

The University of Morelos in Cuernavaca, Mexico, began work in early 2004 to establish a Master of Science Program for Hydraulic Turbine Operators (called HydroMSc). Comision Federal de Electricidad (CFE), the national utility in Mexico, finances the program as part of its continued interest in investing in research and education. All students in the program are CFE employees.

The program was designed to increase the scientific knowledge and technical skills of engineers who are in charge of the operation and maintenance of hydraulic turbines. The ultimate goal of this program is to produce savings in the process of generating electricity, through better operation and maintenance procedures.

Courses being taught cover a variety of topics, including recent developments in computational fluid dynamics (CFD), vibration detection and measurement, fluid flow and velocity measurement methods, control and instrumentation, heat transfer, and solid mechanics. Taking these courses is expected to improve hydro operators’ skills in detecting faults, developing mechanical maintenance programs, and planning for turbine upgrades and rehabilitation. In order to gain academic credentials at the completion of the HydroMSc program, participants must defend their master’s theses. These theses must be focused on research exercises intended to solve real problems at hydro plants.

The first group of 25 students entered the HydroMSc program in January 2006. These students graduated in December 2008. CFE has not yet authorized a new group of students for the program.

Deciding to establish the program

Mexico has 57 hydroelectric facilities operating or undergoing rehabilitation, which provide a total generating capacity of more than 11,000 MW. In addition, the four main rivers in the country — Balsas, Grijalva, Papaloapan, and Santiago — have a hydroelectric potential of 53,000 MW.1 The challenge is to make the best use of the existing facilities and potential future resources through efficient production and distribution of electricity.

In this context, personnel with the University of Morelos proposed the HydroMSc program to CFE. The goal of this program is to enhance the capabilities of operators to both improve operations of existing facilities and face the challenges posed by new hydro development.

University personnel believed that training through short, intensive technical courses was the best way to meet this goal. These courses also needed to provide a discussion forum for operations and maintenance managers, where they could share their approaches to cutting costs, improving equipment longevity and performance, and increasing worker safety. Because the people who take these courses are hydro project operations and maintenance personnel, they may face problems with components and equipment during normal operation. Instead of leading to catastrophic failures, many of these events may be prevented through sharing of knowledge and experience.

In addition to providing savings during electricity generation through achieving better technical competency for operators, the HydroMSc program should provide savings during repair and rehabilitation work. This goal should be gained by providing students with a deep insight into state-of-the-art practices for hydraulic turbine refurbishment.

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Participants in the Hydro MSc program at the University of Morelos in Mexico are active hydroelectric engineers and operators with Comision Federal de Electricidad. Upon completing eight quarters of course work and defending a master’s thesis, students are awarded an MSc degree.

Other goals of the HydroMSc program are to provide methods to: dispatch units more profitably, justify repairs and upgrades, develop code-approved and contractually agreeable methods for turbine acceptance testing, accurately quantify mandated water allocations, and accurately meet minimum flows and other environmental flow requirements.

Structure of the program

The University of Morelos launched a postgraduate program in engineering and applied sciences in 2002.2 In the winter of 2007, the program was awarded the recognition of quality at the MSc level by the National Council for Science and Technology (CONACyT) and the Secretary of Education. This means the postgraduate program has the appropriate academic staff, graduated students, and infrastructure (such as labs and equipment).

To establish the Hydro MSc program, university personnel first needed to design and implement an academic model for the program. There are not many educational programs oriented toward narrow hydroelectric topics because most of the fundamentals and principles of hydro turbine operation were widely explored at the beginning of the last century and there is no additional basic theory. The authors know of only two other programs available.

The HydroMSc program is organized into a total of eight quarters. During each quarter, students cover three subjects. One of these subjects is a scientific seminar, designed for dissemination of scientific knowledge. The other two topics covered in each quarter of the program are:

— First quarter: process thermodynamics and mathematical methods;

— Second quarter: instrumentation and fluid mechanics;

— Third quarter: heat exchangers and solid mechanics;

— Fourth quarter: pumps and hydraulic turbines and fluids laboratory;

— Fifth quarter: CFD and finite element analysis;

— Sixth quarter: mechanical vibrations and hydro turbine rehabilitation; and

— Seventh quarter: operation and maintenance of hydropower plants and methods for lecturing in engineering.

The final (eighth) quarter of the HydroMSc program consists of three courses devoted to conducting scientific research that leads to the presentation and defense of a thesis dissertation. Theses are expected to have a portion of original research, which often is published through papers in international congresses or journals.

Each quarter features 80 hours of course work delivered over a two-week time period. Because the participants’ salaries must be paid during training, short and intensive courses were designed to best use the participants’ time. The courses feature a combination of traditional lectures and hands-on work in the laboratory.

A typical day includes eight hours of classroom/laboratory attendance, four of those hours on one topic and the other four on a second topic. For every two hours of work there is a 30-minute break for relaxation, refreshment, and discussion. Exercises and homework are undertaken during the remainder of the day.

On Saturday, participants enjoy a group dinner in Cuernavaca, and Sunday is a free day. After two weeks of training, participants return to their hydroelectric plants until it is time to begin the next module.

Because the program is organized by quarters, participants must be ready to take the next module within three months.

The HydroMSc program welcomed the first group of 25 participants, all active engineers with CFE, in January 2006. These students graduated in December 2008.

Choosing participants

The curricula for the HydroMSc program includes a requirement that participants read and comprehend English as a second language. This ability makes the graduate student more competitive in the workplace. The Foreign Languages department at the University of Morelos administers an examination to all students, and the resulting qualification is valid for the entire length of the MSc program (two years).


All students chosen to participate in the HydroMSc must have a degree in mechanical engineering. They must be currently employed by CFE at one of its hydro plants. They must be active personnel in the operation and maintenance of hydro plants.

From a prospective group of 26 candidates, 25 were chosen for the first program.

Academic staff

Staff participating in the HydroMSc program work as specialists in their field. In fact, one objective of this program was to take advantage of the expertise of existing staff at the University of Morelos.

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Erosion on the base of guide vanes in the spiral case at the 2,400-MW Chicoasen plant likely is caused by flow distribution. This is the subject of one master’s thesis that was defended as part of the HydroMSc program in Mexico. (Photo courtesy R. Archila, Comision Federal de Electricidad)

In some cases, personnel not affiliated with the university are invited to teach specific topics. For example, professors from the Institute of Fluid Flow Machinery in Poland, who have practical experience in hydropower plant operation, might teach about methods for measuring flow rate that can be used to compute turbine efficiency. Other relevant aspects of hydropower stations addressed by instructors from Gdansk University of Technology in Poland include control of an operating plant.

Results to date

The final stage of the HydroMSc program consists of defending a thesis. When defining the topics of their theses, course participants had to keep in mind that the goal of this program is to use the knowledge they gain to cut costs. Compared with traditional students, HydroMSc participants have the experience of many cumulative years in hydro plant operation. This allows students to have a definitive influence when selecting the thesis topic, contrary to most academic programs where the student’s adviser plays a primary role in this task.

Topics chosen by the first class range from very fundamental studies to determine the main source of instabilities leading to vibration in the zone of fluid-guide vanes contact3 to very practical ones like re-designing the labyrinth seal of a shaft bearing.

Of the 25 master’s thesis topics chosen, it is clear that heat exchange led the way for the first class of students completing the HydroMSc program. Six of the 25 worked on this topic, with the remainder covering such topics as plant efficiency (four), runner repair (three), fluid-solid interaction (two), hydro plant operation (two), fluid dynamics (two), and maintenance (two). The remaining topics, each covered by one HydroMSc student, were cavitation, vibration, fault analysis, and hydro plant design. These results may indicate that heat exchange is one of the primary problems encountered at the CFE plants where these students work.

After completion of courses and thesis, the postgraduate office asks the university to proceed with awarding the degree. The degree exam committee consists of three members of the university academic staff, as well as one invited professor who can be external to the institution.

In December 2008, five of the 25 original participants in the program received their MSc degrees.

This first experience in administering the Hydro MSc program has provided several valuable lessons for the future. Based on these lessons, for the next group of candidates university personnel hope to reduce the time required to receive the MSc degree. One change intended to address this issue is for students to begin working on their thesis project beginning in the fourth quarter. This way, participants can report on advances in their projects in parallel with attending lectures. The University of Morelos and CFE want to achieve a 100 percent success rate for the program, with all enrolled students receiving their MSc degree.

Future progress of the MSc program at the University of Morelos is subject to the requirements and resources of CFE. This company pays the salary, tuition, and course fees for each participant. At this time, a second group of students has not been authorized to begin the program.


The authors wish to thank Dr. Janusz Kubiak, who participated in the HydroMSc program as a promoter, lecturer, and scientist. He contributed to the structure of the program and taught some courses. Dr. Kubiak would have been included as an author of this article but passed away in April 2009.


1Diploma in Hydraulic Turbines, Notes of the Course, Centro de Investigación en Ingeniería y Ciencias Aplicadas, CIICAp, Universidad Autónoma del Estado de Morelos, Cuernavaca, Mexico, 2004 (in Spanish).

2Diploma of Non-Conventional Energy Resources, Notes of the Course, Sogesta ENI, Urbino, Italy, 1985.

3Papillon, B., J. Brooks, J.L. Deniau, and M. Sabourin, “Solving the Guide Vanes Vibration Problem at Shasta,” HydroVision 2006 Technical Papers CD-Rom, HCI Publications, Kansas City, Mo., 2006.

Fernando Sierra, PhD, and Gustavo Urquiza, PhD, are researchers and professors in the Centro de Investigacion en Ingenieria y Ciencias Aplicadas at the Universidad Autonoma del Estado de Morelos in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Jose Manuel Fernandez, Eng., is manager of hydroelectricity with Comision Federal de Electricidad in Mexico.

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