The low hanging fruit of hydro is within your reach. And it’s there for the taking. Although this may sound more at home in a horticultural journal, believe me, it is relevant to IWP&DC.

At Uprating and Refurbishing Hydro Power Plants VIII, IWP&DC’s conference held in Prague, Czech Republic from 10-12 December 2001, delegates were told that uprating and refurbishment can be described as the low hanging fruit of hydro. All we have to do is work out the best way to pluck such ripe offerings from their branches without damaging or dropping them.

Fruitful comparisons may not be the norm for uprating and refurbishment but embracing new ways of thinking was very much the order of the day at URHP. Conference chairman, past vice president of icold Geoff Sims, explained why in his keynote speech.

‘Through your discussion and debate you will be extending and refining the state of the art,’ Sims told delegates. ‘We will not simply cover technical issues at this conference. Overcoming barriers to uprating and refurbishment projects is a challenge before us, and multi-discipline approaches are more likely to provide us with economically viable and safer plans. In developing projects we should think of ourselves as businessmen and politicians, in addition to being engineers. We need to rise to meet the largely non-technical challenges being mounted.’

As speakers and delegates discovered in Prague, such an approach will mobilise uprating and refurbishment as a vehicle for creating new business for old plants.

Window of opportunity

The Czech National Committee of ICOLD was an active supporter of URHP from the outset. Chairman Professor Broza and Secretary Ladislav Satrapa, along with Zdenek Saturka from Czech utility CEZ, gave delegates a good insight into hydro power and dams in their home country. The Czech Republic, like many of its neighbours in central and eastern Europe, can be viewed as a springboard for hydro uprating and refurbishment. Economic reconstruction and political transformations have opened the window of opportunity in the region.

‘The new voices that are brought to the table through this process tend to focus on the efficiency of the existing power distribution system from a range of perspectives, including economic, technical, environmental and social ones,’ said Sims. ‘The effect is to present positively the improvement of existing assets through uprating or refurbishment.’

John Irving from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) spoke in one of the new panel discussion sessions at URHP, called the World Commission on Dams: Matching Opportunities with Needs. Irving said that the considerable use of hydro power in many Central Eastern European countries and the Confederation of Independent States means there is great potential to optimise and expand completed projects (see graph).

Alessandro Palmieri, senior dams specialist with the World Bank, also spoke about his Bank’s growing support for refurbishing hydro projects. His message was that there are business opportunities in dam refurbishment and storage conservation. ‘The issue is not construction or conservation,’ he said. ‘We need both. But we do need to focus more on refurbishment and conservation of existing facilities.’

So why were financiers speaking in a session focussed on the World Commission on Dams (WCD)? Session chairman Larry Haas, formerly a team leader with the WCD secretariat and now an independent consultant, had the foresight to see that the Commission’s report can be used positively by the water power and dams industry.

‘Some people say that WCD’s report is the leading edge of management change. Others say it is the bleeding edge,’ Haas claimed. ‘But we’re not here to look at any controversial aspects today. We will be looking at those related to uprating and refurbishment. Festering problems in the industry are still giving dams a bad name.’

One of the Commission’s strategic priorities looked at existing dams, stating there are opportunities for optimising benefits derived from them. Donal O’Leary, secretary general of the hydro-equipment-association (HEA), agreed. Established in May 2001 by alstom Power, va-tech-hydro and voith-siemens Hydro Power, HEA represents the hydro equipment industry in follow-up dialogue and actions with other stakeholders resulting from the WCD’s report.

‘The industry agrees with the WCD strategic priority that the issue of maintaining and refurbishing the current stock of dam infrastructure, including hydroelectric plants, is important,’ O’Leary said. ‘The industry also agrees with the usefulness of the WCD template for analysing uprating and refurbishment of hydro plants. However,’ he cautioned, ‘the development of action plans needs to manage regulatory risk, be realistic and cost-effective.’

A question of money

As with most areas of business, finance is needed to oil the wheels of uprating and refurbishment. ‘Essentially it boils down to a question of money,’ Sims said. ‘Income for the owners, profit for the contractors and consultants, all willingly paid for by an improved service received by the public.’

In the WCD session representatives from the EBRD and World Bank were able to emphasise that the policies of many development banks support projects with good environmental credentials. ‘Hence the EBRD, World Bank and European Investment Bank are often willing to seriously consider uprating and refurbishment of hydroelectric projects,’ Sims concluded. ‘Support from such prestigious agencies is often of crucial importance in encouraging other organisations to join in contributing to the financing on reasonable terms.’

It seemed progress was being made in Prague. As HEA’s Donal O’Leary told delegates: ‘Our financial colleagues from the World Bank and EBRD are very interested in working with real life projects. The EBRD is particularly interested in Russia. The best advice I can give you is to contact John Irving from the EBRD in six months if you have any queries in this area.’

Reflecting on the importance of the WCD panel, O’Leary added it had emphasised that the industry needs to do more to improve its position. ‘We need to package projects in a way that allows us to gain more financial support. We also need to think about how to improve communication.’

Path to success

The communication skills of Fred Ayer from Fred Ayer Associates in the US, were admirably displayed in his panel session called Overcoming Barriers to Successful Refurbishment. Under Ayer’s leadership, panellists were able to stimulate the audience through their discussion of how environmental, social, financial and legal challenges to uprating and refurbishment have been overcome.

‘This was a good example of the “nuts and bolts” approach that is needed for such panel sessions to succeed,’ Geoff Sims said. ‘Metaphorically dirty finger nails with anecdotal evidence is always of greatest value and interest.’

A combined discussion between Ayer’s panellists and the WCD members proved that the real problems in uprating and refurbishment are not always of a technical nature. Effective communication appears to be half the battle.

‘Why have conservationists and NGOs prevented the development of hydro projects in the past?’ Peter Molinari from Engadiner Kraftwerke in Switzerland asked. ‘It’s because they are better communicators than us,’ he said.

‘We hear the NGOs because they have the loudest voice,’ John Yale from montgomery-watson-harza added. ‘But we also have to let the silent stakeholders know they have a voice too.’

With this in mind, Haas believes the hydro industry must move to a situation where communities are aware of the benefits of hydro power. Corlie Pretorius from IUCN – the World Conservation Union, agrees. ‘With the hydro industry in particular the public simply does not know what you’re going to do. In some cases, when the public protests it’s a knee-jerk reaction because they don’t know what’s going on,’ she said. ‘It’s time to spend more money to let people know about the good points.’

‘Self-promotion of the industry is such an important area for us,’ says Haas. ‘If we want to promote the industry then we need support from the media. The problem with hydro is that most people are engineers, not skilled presenters.’

‘We do need to be better at public relations,’ Yale agrees. ‘We need to tell people about the good things we’ve achieved. And we need to communicate more effectively with the public when working on projects.’

‘If a local community is behind a project,’ O’Leary said, ‘then you’re almost guaranteed success.’

Multi-skilled engineers

Discussion at URHP pointed to a multi-discipline approach for future uprating and refurbishment. Peter Cassidy from UK legal firm Masons said that this is now true for all members of the team involved in hydro uprating and refurbishment. ‘Lawyers are becoming businessmen too. If they are to represent the hydro industry, then they need to know about the industry. As such, they tend to go out with consultants to learn more about the business.’

Sims believes that the essential skills required by engineers wishing to succeed include:

• Obtaining finance for the work.

• Multi-discipline working.

• Matrix management.

• Sensitivity to sociological and environmental issues.

• Team working.

As Larry Haas and Fred Ayers’ successful panel sessions illustrated, the importance of multi-skilled teams in uprating and refurbishment can not be underestimated in the twenty-first century. ‘Even for solving technical difficulties, a specialist team is potentially dangerous,’ Sims warns.

Although the panel sessions were a new and very important part of URHP, technical paper presentations over the three days offered detailed accounts of electrical and mechanical rehabilitation. Speakers focused on projects in Belgium, Czech Republic, EL Salvador, Japan, Poland and the US among others.

Sims said that these sessions (chaired by Jan Tosnar of Hydropol, independent consultant I M Sahai and Bernhard Pelikan of the University of Agricultural Sciences in Austria) represent the more traditional, but nonetheless, valuable content of URHP.

‘With no shortage of questions or discussion, the sessions were lively and interesting, with a very high technical content. This is the subject that many attendees want to discuss, and they look to URHP to help them to do it. There is no question that we should continue.

‘But,’ Sims added, ‘it appears that in the field of rehabilitation the technical problems are easy to solve. Having accepted this we begin to broaden our perspective of the whole subject of rehabilitation; what makes it happen and what hinders it.’

By broadening traditional perspectives of uprating and refurbishment, further themes evolved during URHP and will require greater discussion at future conferences. Professional training and risk management were considered worthy of more detailed interaction, along with more practical information about improving communication and shaping multi-discipline teams.

Broader issues

At URHP VIII the key issues involved in extending and optimising the operational life of existing dams and hydro power projects were brought to the fore. Technical developments and project case studies are still vitally important but panel discussion sessions facilitated the interesting exchange of information on financial, legal, social and environmental issues – issues that will be just as important in uprating and refurbishment as they are in new construction.

Communication and stakeholder involvement are all words we’ve heard before, but in the twenty-first century they will bear even more significance for uprating and refurbishment. By bringing bigger issues on board, URHP has helped to pave the way forward for the twenty-first century. In this industry there is plenty of new business opportunities for old plants.

Now that we’ve guided you to the fruit trees, and shown you how to cut down the ripe fruit, the rest is up to you.

Reach up. Reap the benefits from successful uprating and refurbishment.

This article provides a brief insight into the discussion that took place at URHP. Copies of the conference proceedings and panel presentations are still available. Contact Julie Rossiter (tel +44 208 269 7823, email: u-jrossiter-wilmington-co-uk-u) for more details.

A full report on the panel sessions, WCD: Matching Opportunities with Needs and Overcoming Barriers to Successful Refurbishment, will be published in the February issue of IWP&DC.

A complete version of Geoff Sims’ keynote speech can be viewed online at

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