ETH Zurich researchers developing solutions to optimise Swiss hydropower plants

2 April 2024

In a bid to bolster Switzerland's iconic hydropower industry, researchers at ETH Zurich, led by Robert Boes, are developing specific solutions to optimize electricity production from Swiss hydropower plants. Their efforts are geared towards ensuring that hydropower continues to serve as the linchpin of Switzerland's electricity supply in the face of evolving challenges.

Boes and his team have embarked on a multi-faceted research project, addressing critical issues such as reservoir silting and turbine wear caused by sediment. Their findings offer promising pathways to enhance efficiency, prolong equipment lifespan, and mitigate environmental impact within the hydropower sector.

A recent breakthrough unveiled by the researchers underscores the potential for optimizing water management strategies to amplify electricity generation along the River Limmat. Through meticulous analysis, they determined that judicious regulation of Lake Zurich's water levels, in alignment with adapted protocols, could yield a substantial 2% increase in electricity output from power plants dotting the Limmat's course. By leveraging weather models to fine-tune water level adjustments and enhance predictive capabilities, the researchers aim to harness the power of precision in managing hydropower resources.

Furthermore, Boes and his team have delved into the realm of sediment management, crucial for safeguarding turbine integrity and maximizing operational efficiency. Their investigations into refining "sand traps" have yielded insights into optimal trap designs that minimize turbine abrasion. By advocating for longer traps with gentler gradients, the researchers advocate for a nuanced approach that balances effectiveness with economic feasibility.

Addressing the scourge of sedimentation, the team has also championed the implementation of bypass tunnels as a structural defense mechanism for reservoirs. Through meticulous experimentation and analysis, they've identified high-strength granite as the optimal material for lining tunnel floors, ensuring resilience against erosion and prolonging infrastructure longevity. Case studies, such as the Solis reservoir in Graubünden, serve as compelling demonstrations of the tangible benefits conferred by strategic bypass tunnel deployment.

Moreover, Boes and his collaborators have revolutionized turbine maintenance strategies, employing predictive modelling to anticipate wear-induced efficiency losses and optimize maintenance schedules. By proactively identifying turbine degradation, power plant operators can pre-emptively address performance declines and maximize electricity production.

Beyond addressing immediate challenges, the researchers have also embarked on ambitious endeavors to expand Switzerland's hydropower capacity. Through site assessments and stakeholder consultations, they've identified promising locations for new reservoirs and proposed strategies for augmenting existing dams. These initiatives hold promise for bolstering Switzerland's renewable energy portfolio and securing its energy future.


Zurich's Platzspitz weir at the confluence of the Limmat and Sihl rivers. (Photograph: Canton of Zurich)

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