Hydropower projects can evolve digitally through digital technologies and a data-driven approach.

Thinking

When a search for data and answers is smart hydropower infrastructure

Knowing how our hydropower assets are feeling

Command Google Assistant with the words “Hey Google”, and you’ll be met with plenty of data related to your topic of interest. What if we could adopt this concept for gathering data on the condition and health of hydropower and dam schemes, with the aim of improving the performance of these infrastructure assets?

The further development of digital technologies promises to have significant impacts in the hydropower industry. This will certainly involve the creation and use of digitised information, and processing of vast amounts of data.

Digital hydropower can improve operations and maintenance practices through improved condition monitoring systems and automated maintenance practices, enhanced control systems, together with decision-making tools to optimise decisions around modernisation and upgrades.

At a time when organisations are seeking automation improvements to bolster operations and the bottom line, asking dams how they’re feeling could provide those all-important marginal gains.

A greater role in the future energy mix

Just as solar and wind energy decarbonise electricity supply, hydropower is a mature technology that will be a core part of the energy mix in the transition to a net zero emissions future. Hydropower in some regions plays an even greater role than its counterparts because it provides sustainable energy as well as community water security, flood control; irrigation and water supply.

At the end of 2020, the International Renewable Energy Agency reported that total renewable energy generation capacity amounted to 2 799 GW with hydropower accounting for the largest share (1 211 GW). It also remains an attractive power source due to its competitive levelised cost of electricity and dispatchable nature.

Hydropower (and pumped hydropower in particular), provides balancing, security and storage to the electricity grid in a manner that is considerably cheaper, cleaner and more applicable at a larger scale than other solutions.

To adapt to a greater role in the future energy mix, and remain relevant and competitive in the renewables landscape, hydropower assets will need to become digitally enabled, data-driven operations.

Untapping potential with a common data environment

Innovative digital tools have been used for good effect to solve discrete problems and provide specific outcomes within the field of hydropower for many decades. However, the use of such tools within a single, fully integrated digital platform, or common data environment (Figure 1) – in which the project teams and stakeholders work collaboratively together throughout the project delivery stage – is still developing.

Just as a Google Assistant is ready to help when and where needed, digital forecasting and analytics from a hydropower asset can be one of the greatest ways that developers and operators can optimise power production and hedge climate vulnerability.

A digitally enabled and data-driven approach makes hydropower assets smarter and shifts operation away from incident management to a proactive approach to project delivery, operation, maintenance and overall sustainability.

Using data efficiently requires several steps, and this is why a common data environment for assets matters. It’s fair to say that a hydropower asset would likely generate a colossal amount of data. The struggle for operators is wrestling with, and dispersing, this information effectively.

The goal is to create one connected digital delivery ecosystem, or asset information model (AIM), with seamless integration from project inception through to the operation and maintenance phase. This will empower the whole project team (owner/operator, consulting engineer, contractors and suppliers), to promote innovation and increase overall productivity and project performance in the key areas of cost, project duration, quality, safety and asset sustainability.

Figure 1: A typical common data concept for flow of information capture and use

Common data concept flow of information capture and use

Common data concept flow of information capture and use

In order for any digital platform to be of real value, it is necessary from the outset to ensure that data and information frameworks are consistent, and various software programs have a high degree of interoperability (Figure 2) so they can ‘talk’ to each other in a unified and integrated, seamless environment. Use of industry foundation classes (IFC’s) is a prerequisite in this regard.

Linking the physical and digital worlds allows data from any stage of the development and operation stages to automatically update digital twins, or models, allowing an almost real-time feed to continuously tell project teams how the planned and actual assets are ‘feeling’.

Figure 2: Digital tools to enable hydropower assets to tell us how they’re feeling

Digital tools enable hydropower assets

This approach to digital data capture, project development and management contributes to effective asset maintenance and operation and can inform on future asset beneficiation and upgrades. A common data environment is mapped to digital forecasting and analytics tools to inform long-term asset management and performance optimisation decisions.

A digital step change to resilient assets

As within most industries, the key to productivity improvements in hydropower project delivery and operation/maintenance lies in more efficient project management practices and better collaboration within, and across the delivery teams, (asset owners/operators, consultants, contractors and suppliers alike).

Moving asset management and project delivery to a unified digital platform is likely to be the most powerful way to address the challenges of rectifying ageing assets or constructing new projects. These challenges include making infrastructure more resilient to maintain productivity, move organisations to a digital way of thinking, and adequately resource organisations with digital specialists.

Hydro Challenges

Challenges

Cultural

As digital tools mature, a cultural shift away from traditional design and delivery towards a data-driven mindset will be necessary to maximise value from investments. A key cultural challenge here is that it is the organisation’s leadership which must generate the right company culture – a digital one and this must be planned from project inception and embedded in the procurement approach.

Currently, very few hydropower projects are delivered entirely in a digital format as proponents are unsure of the step change required to achieve this. Organisations may not necessarily be set up to create the best digital outcomes with their existing procurement processes.

Technical and legal

Operators will need to address data capability issues to be able to aggregate and process data for production optimisation across their existing assets, and to inform rehabilitation projects.

Not to be forgotten are the potential legal and contractual issues faced when using digital models or federated, combined models, and their required consistency of standards. When an originator’s digital models and software are federated to a common data environment, issues of intellectual property ownership and liability will also surface.

Environmental

While providing essential adaptation services, hydropower facilities are not immune to the changing climate. The increasing volatility of weather patterns pose an increasing challenge.

To mitigate this issue, operators will need to develop a long-term strategy for monitoring and maintaining data and, where possible, incorporate historical records into forecasting models in order to promote asset resilience.

This will require the definition of environment related targets that are tracked to create a proactive approach to environmental sustainability, and share value creation with local communities.

Hydro Opportunities

Opportunities

Concrete opportunities to realise hydropower projects lie in the digitalisation of control systems that help operators make more sophisticated choices during the planning, design, construction, operation, maintenance and management phases.

The technology is already at our disposal – it’s the framework on how to use it in the short-, medium- and long-term that is required to make the step change towards more resilient assets.

The different mechanisms for generating and integrating digital frameworks for hydropower assets

Short-term

Tap or hover over the numbers to reveal the different mechanisms

The short-term mechanisms for generating and integrating digital frameworks for hydropower assets.

1

New technologies provide desirable returns on investment

2

Data-driven culture in operator organisations

3

Obtaining tangible value from collected data

4

Appoint experienced Knowledge or Data Managers to oversee digital project delivery

5

Choose consultants with ISO 19650 certification

New technologies provide desirable returns on investment Data-driven culture in operator organisations Obtaining tangible value from collected data Appoint experienced Knowledge or Data Managers to oversee digital project delivery Choose consultants with ISO 19650 certification

Tap or hover over the numbers to reveal the different mechanisms

New technologies provide desirable returns on investment

Data-driven culture in operator organisations

Obtaining tangible value from collected data

Appoint experienced Knowledge or Data Managers to oversee digital project delivery

Choose consultants with ISO 19650 certification

Medium-term

Tap or hover over the numbers to reveal the different mechanisms

The med-term mechanisms for generating and integrating digital frameworks for hydropower assets.

1

Digital collection and analysis cover multiple disciplines, aspects and processes

2

Move procurement process and asset delivery to a digital platform

3

Integrate a digital framework across the whole organisation

4

Electronic contracts are replaced with true digital contracts

5

Use a common data environment during project delivery that drives collaboration and productivity

Digital collection and analysis cover multiple disciplines, aspects and processes Move procurement process and asset delivery to a digital platform Integrate a digital framework across the whole organisation Electronic contracts are replaced with true digital contracts Use a common data environment during project delivery that drives collaboration and productivity

Tap or hover over the numbers to reveal the different mechanisms

Digital collection and analysis cover multiple disciplines, aspects and processes

Move procurement process and asset delivery to a digital platform

Integrate a digital framework across the whole organisation

Electronic contracts are replaced with true digital contracts

Use a common data environment during project delivery that drives collaboration and productivity

Long-term

Tap or hover over the numbers to reveal the different mechanisms

The long-term mechanisms for generating and integrating digital frameworks for hydropower assets.

1

Common language for data in the hydropower industry

2

Long-life durability of assets using ‘big data’ and advanced analytics

3

A digital framework that complies with security standards and processes

4

Digitally enabled workers

Common language for data in the hydropower industry Long-life durability of assets using ‘big data’ and advanced analytics A digital framework that complies with security standards and processes Digitally enabled workers

Tap or hover over the numbers to reveal the different mechanisms

Common language for data in the hydropower industry

Long-life durability of assets using ‘big data’ and advanced analytics

A digital framework that complies with security standards and processes

Digitally enabled workers

Leaving a legacy

Hydropower operators are faced with increasing customer and business demands for water and energy, along with ageing assets that are sometimes no longer able to provide optimal performance to meet these demands. To effectively address the transition risks of climate change, and water demand to contribute to a net zero emissions future, hydropower assets face a critical transition.

If hydropower project procurement can evolve digitally, and the project delivery process be shifted to a common data environment, the supply of renewable energy from hydropower will become even more competitive in the renewables landscape.

The wider value of digitalisation includes economic growth and productivity improvements, improved value to customers, and environmental preservation through enhanced quality and sustainability of built assets.

The benefits provided by digital platforms are to capture, explore and maintain consistent and coordinated information that can be readily understood and shared between teams and stakeholders.

While hydropower operators are no strangers to using digital tools and systems, it’s the modern way of capturing and using digital data that drives asset resilience and efficiency.

Achieving far-reaching, industry-wide change for successful, fully-integrated digital platforms, will need time to truly manifest. Proponents, or employers, that take a leadership role in directing the inclusion of integrated digital platforms and well-managed information and data in their organisation’s operations will reap the benefits of shorter project delivery times, lower project costs and assets which are more aligned to their needs.

The concept of asking ‘Hey Dam: Tell me how you’re feeling today’ modernises one of the oldest power sources on the planet into a digitally enabled, data-driven future that is more climate resilient and helps future generations prosper.


About the Author

Bill Hakin has been working as a professional engineer in the dams and hydropower industry for more than 30 years, across four continents. He became interested in the digital delivery of projects because he saw the advantages it provided when he was the project director of a large hydropower and dam rehabilitation scheme after the original infrastructure was destroyed in the 13-year civil war in Liberia. He was invited to present on the subject at a World Bank seminar on the project in January 2021.

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