“The development of digital technologies promises to have significant impacts in the energy industry,” Sinan Küfeo─člu and his colleagues from the University of Cambridge in England state.

In a technical report published in June 2019, the authors explain that this will involve the creation and use of computerised information and processing of the vast amounts of data which is generated at all stages of the energy supply chain. With the main aim of improving efficiency, such intelligent systems can help decision makers make more sophisticated choices during the design, construction, operation and maintenance phases of power grids.

“Whether you call it digital transformation, the Internet of Things or Industry 4.0, the primary driver for businesses seeking automation improvements is to bolster the bottom line,” Martyn Williams, Managing Director of industrial software provider COPA-DATA UK, adds. “At a time when political uncertainty is driving up the cost of doing business, many organisations are looking inward, searching for those all-important marginal gains.”

Digitalisation is becoming an integral element

Indeed, the International Hydropower Association (IHA) believes that in the hydropower sector, digitalisation is becoming an integral element of all stages of development, from planning and design, construction, operation, maintenance and the management of hydro assets.

At its 2019 Hydropower Congress the association devoted a special focus session on digitalisation and looked at how it will enable hydropower to adapt to a more diverse role in the future energy mix.  IHA says that digital hydropower can improve its O&M practices through improved condition monitoring systems and automated maintenance practices, enhanced control systems and through decision-making tools to optimise decisions around modernisation.

Manufacturers in the hydropower industry agree that digitalisation is key to enabling growth in the hydropower sector by capturing the value of data. IHA says that manufacturers believe that by implementing diagnostic services, acoustic monitoring and remote expert support, hydropower maintenance can not only be improved but can be made more cost-effective

Speaking on the subject of digitalisation and data gathering at a previous IHA event, Stela Nenova, Corporate Affairs Advisor at ENTSO-E, said: “It’s very important, when talking about data and decision-making, that we gather good quality data and make tools openly available. Hydropower generators can help by providing better data and better access to data.”

Dr Óli Sveinsson, Executive Vice President of Research & Development at Landsvirkjun, highlighted the importance of data monitoring at hydropower infrastructure in tandem with visual inspections. “Using data efficiently requires a number of steps – in our case, investing in these steps has been highly rewarding,” he addd.

Daniel Paschini, Director of EDF-GEH’s Maurienne hydro business unit, also remarked that although decision-makers can now benefit from computerised models and ‘big data’ processing, these technologies “cannot replace human intelligence, good organisation or skilled staff.” 

Verbund says it is helping to equip the hydropower industry for the requirements of the energy revolution. Photo courtesy of Verbund

Growth in smart technology

Bob Tilbury is SMEC's Market Director for Water, Dams and Hydropower in Australia and New Zealand. 

“Digital transformation plays an important role in the water sector. Smart technology is embedded in how we do our work at SMEC as designers, and how infrastructure owners operate and maintain their assets,” he says. “It is an exciting time for our industry. I think it’s interesting figuring out where you want to sit in the field. You need to ask yourself; do you want to miss the opportunities presented by new technologies, or do you want to be an early adopter?”

Tilbury spoke about how SMEC is transforming the way data is captured and interpreted.

“Remote data capture is already embedded within the engineering community across the board and particularly within the hydro, dams and water sector. We have moved from aerial photography and drones to LIDAR, 3D scanning and multiple forms of remote capture that capture a broad scope of data. Our teams focus on interrogating that data, and importantly, aim to capitalise on the depth and richness of that data in different ways. 

“The role of the engineer has shifted into driving how we use technology in a much more interactive way,” he concludes, “to increase the quality of data capture – including real time capabilities.”

In their recently published analysis of emerging technologies in the hydropower sector, Ioannis Kougias et al say that as many existing hydropower facilities were constructed several decades ago the degree of digitalisation of their equipment is low compared to that of modern renewable systems such as wind turbines. 

In their paper in Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, Kougias et al state: “The rehabilitation and upgrading of the existing fleet offer the opportunity to digitise the way hydropower equipment operates. Apart from the prolongation of the lifetime and addressing cyber-security risks, rehabilitation and digitalisation involve increasing the overall efficiency and, thus, the produced energy. Current estimations show that the digitalisation of the world's 1225GW installed hydropower capacity could increase annual production by 42TWh, which is equal to US$5billion in annual operational savings and significant reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.”

Addressing concerns

Looking to the digital future, IHA discussions have also sought to address various concerns of the hydropower industry:

  • Human resources: Digital transformation is described as being strategic for most companies. However, in order to prevent human resources becoming a barrier to its development, continuous learning will be needed. IHA says that with the appropriate change management strategy, organisations need not be resistant to the implementation of the digital process: in fact, most organisations find it to be a positive experience.
  • Economics: Most companies recognise the importance of the digitalisation trend and the fact that it is important to energy policymakers and regulators. However, some are concerned about the economics of it and the potential for technological obsolescence. Thus digitalisation must be cost effective and demonstrated by a proven track record. 
  • Cyber security: Cyber security is described as being one of the top digitalisation issues for the hydropower sector. IHA says the advent of ‘big data’ and more complex IT systems to support digitalisation can create the need for greater security measures. Digitalisation can also be an enabler for enhanced cyber security.

As Danielle Merfield from GE renewables believes: “Digitalisation will allow companies to transform their productivity, their customers’ productivity and overall reduce their risk.”

Company steps towards digitalisation

Verbund is the biggest power company in Austria and a leading operator of hydropower plants in Bavaria. 

What was ground breaking just a few decades ago – such as the central remote control of entire groups of hydropower plants – is now a technically proven standard. Digitalisation now covers all areas of everyday life and hydropower generation, which has proven its worth for over 100 years, now faces the challenges of what has been called the fourth industrial revolution.

Unique anywhere in Europe is the live demonstration at the pilot power plant in Rabenstein, Styria where Verbund presents the future of electricity generation in the Digital Hydropower Plant 4.0. Established two years ago, Verbund launched development modules to equip the hydropower industry for the requirements of the energy revolution. Digital innovations have been tested and further developed at the Mur power plant in Rabenstein.

Achim Kaspar, Chief Operating Officer of Verbund, said: “Our goal is to evaluate all conceivable possibilities of digital applications for hydropower and to put the most promising technologies to the test in a pilot power plant. The range of digital technologies tested in the Rabenstein pilot power plant is extremely diverse and ranges from intelligent sensor concepts, anomaly detection and forecasting models, digital twins, mobile assistance systems, virtual power plant models, innovative autonomous surveying and inspection concepts to networked platform solutions.”

Verbund says it was able to count on the close collaboration with numerous Austrian and international research and technology partners right from the start. 

At the Verbund demonstration project the diving robot can be steered with centimetre precision to the impeller of the turbine. Photo courtesy of Verbund

Global alliance

A global technology alliance has been formed by Mott MacDonald, Endeavour Programme and WT Partnership in a bid to harness the emerging artificial intelligence (AI) technology to prevent potential time and cost overruns on major projects. The alliance says it aims to bring a new paradigm of data driven project management to better manage projects of any kind all over the world. 

“There is a huge amount of money and time invested in the delivery of major projects, and despite this, they continue to underperform, deliver less than budgeted benefits and inevitably become the focus of political and media scrutiny,” said Dan Phillips, global practice lead for project, programme and commercial management at Mott MacDonald. “The construction industry lags behind other industries in the use of data and adoption of AI technology will play a big part in helping us achieve better outcomes for project teams, clients and ultimately the end users who feel the effect of project delays and cost overruns the most.”

Endeavour Programme, a technology firm headquartered in Brisbane, has developed Octant AI, a scalable cloud hosted case-based decision-making system. It gathers data and analyses the performance in projects to produce improved insight allowing earlier, more effective, decision making. Improving the ability of executives and project leaders to improve outcomes. The new alliance will use this technology, combined with vast knowledge and experience of Mott MacDonald and WT Partnership in the design and delivery of large-scale infrastructure around the world.

“Large projects have become so complex with so many interdependencies and stakeholders, that managing them with tradition methods is ever more challenging,” explained David Porter, Endeavour Programme founder. “Through our alliance we’re aiming to lead the way in adapting this new technology, and we are seeking to make a measurable change to the performance of some of our biggest projects.”

Nick Deeks, managing director of international cost management consultancy WT Partnership, added: “We know that the future of professional services for projects has to be integrated with emerging technologies such as Octant AI. Our clients want more certainty, better adaptability and the better value for money that technology can deliver. We want to be leading this field, and this is the most advanced AI technology available in the market.”

Early applications of Octant AI have been used on civil projects and for large government portfolios and the alliance plans to roll out new modules for other sectors as soon as possible.