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Hacking Hydro: Idea Contest Seeks To Sharpen Waterpower’s Renewable Energy Edge

Tomas Kellner
September 28, 2019
Commercial electricity was a shiny new thing in 1897, when operators flipped the switch on the Mechanicville Hydroelectric Station on the Hudson River in upstate New York. Straddling one of the river's fastest-running channels, the plant was famous even before it began sending power to customers. Up to 1,000 visitors day came to gawk at the technological marvel, whose generators were designed by GE polymath and research lab founder Charles Proteus Steinmetz. And it was built to last. In 1997, a century after it opened for business, Mechanicville became the longest continuously running power plant in the world.
Today, the red brick structure produces enough electricity to supply 4,000 homes, a living monument to Steinmetz's genius. Yet even he would be impressed by the industry’s ongoing evolution. Today, turbines equipped with sensors generate not only electricity but also torrents of data that can be analyzed and used to spot patterns of behavior that could lead to potential problems. Hydropower plants can serve a new purpose: as giant batteries. Known as pumped storage, this process can soak up excess electricity from renewables produced on sunny and windy days to pump water uphill to a reservoir. Later, when solar generation wanes, the water is released back to a reservoir at a lower elevation, passing through hydroelectric turbines on the way. “Pumped storage has a lot of potential,” said Pascal Radue, president and CEO of GE Renewable Energy’s Hydro Solutions unit. “It needs to be much more recognized.”

Radue was speaking at WaterPower Canada, a large industry conference taking place this week in Montreal, Quebec — an appropriate setting given that the province’s lakes and rivers provide nearly all of the electricity its residents need. The event attracts large hydropower players like Hydro-Quebec, as well as equipment makers and service providers like GE Renewable Energy, whose North American headquarters is located in a Montreal suburb.

But GE Renewable Energy didn’t have a booth there. “We wanted to transform the way we approach industry conferences,” explained Radue. Instead, the company brought in 25 students from Canada’s higher-learning institutions — McGill University, Concordia University, Laval University and L'institut Supérieur d'Informatique, to name a few — and paired them with 25 GE employees for a two-day hackathon. The goal of the event was to bring fresh ideas to the industry. “As engineers, we are often stuck in our ways trying to solve problems,” Radue said. “We wanted to create an environment where new ideas could arise from the mix of our employees’ deep knowledge of our mature technology and the students’ understanding of the new world we live in.”

 width= The 50 "aqua agents" who participated in this week's hackathon included students from Canadian universities and GE employees. "We wanted to create an environment where new ideas could arise from the mix of our employees’ deep knowledge of our mature technology and the students’ understanding of the new world we live in.” Image credit: Andrew Robertson for GE Reports. Top image credit: GE Renewable Energy.

The students had backgrounds in data science, physics, business and even biology, while the GE Renewable Energy employees came from the hydropower industry. “They really helped us with focusing our ideas,” said Esther Mazvidza, who studied chemistry as an undergraduate at South Africa’s University of Cape Town and recently received a graduate degree in finance from McGill. “Looking from outside in, the industry seemed simple, but it was nothing like it.”

GE Renewable Energy divided the participants, or “aqua agents,” into seven groups, each of them assigned one of three challenges: designing disruptive business models via novel partnerships; using data to develop new services; and harnessing emerging technologies such as augmented reality, 3D printing and digital twins.

As the clock ticked on Tuesday afternoon, the teams searched for ideas in breakout rooms overlooking the stone walls of Montreal’s Cathédrale Marie-Reine-du-Monde. Some groups had quickly coalesced around a project; others still only had walls plastered in purple and orange notes when they broke for a catered dinner of pizza and salad.

Once a day, the teams would bounce their ideas off a group of GE “super-mentors,” separate from the 25 GE workers, who would help them spot the strengths and weak spots in their choices. The students also mingled with delegates at the WaterPower Canada conference, taking stock of the latest technologies and calibrating their own ideas to make sure they added something new to the industry.

 width= Teams had five minutes to pitch their ideas to the jury. Image credit: Andrew Robertson for GE Reports.

By Wednesday afternoon, the rooms looked dramatically different. Some teams had completed mock-ups of their apps and others had built prototypes of their solutions from Legos, construction paper, plastic modeling paste and other materials. Their ideas varied from an app with viral potential that would allow users to track their carbon footprint to submersible, data-gathering robots that can travel inside massive water turbines and spot potential problems. Some proposals involved AI, machine learning and 3D printing, while others explored the possibility of using pumped storage to electrify Canadian railways and looked at using rain and wastewater to generate power.

The teams were also working on their pitches, making sure they could clearly explain their ideas to the jury, which included industry experts like Radue, Anne-Raphaëlle Audouin, president of WaterPower Canada, and Jérôme Caron, a Hydro-Quebec executive, as well as Serge Péloquin, mayor of Sorel-Tracy, where GE Renewable Energy has a factory.

On Thursday morning, the teams started presenting in their rooms — five minutes for a pitch and two minutes for questions. The jury then used four criteria to score the aqua agents’ ideas: Is the solution really new? Is it answering a real problem? Is there a market for it? Can it be implemented?

Picking a winner wasn’t easy. Some jurors liked solutions, like the carbon-footprint-tracking app, that were aimed at the broad public. Others liked ideas focusing on the industry and customers. The decision ultimately came down to the two most popular ideas: the carbon app and Yellow Submarine, an autonomous swimming robot the size of a football that uses ultrasound to scan underwater turbine wheels for cracks and other damage, and then uses the information to build a digital model of the asset. The robot speeds up maintenance and the data allows customers to spot problems before they get out of hand.

In the end, Yellow Submarine got the main “brain” prize. “It’s good to have vision, but ultimately you have to be able to bring this vision to reality,” Radue said. “We thought the robot was something you could implement now.” The carbon app was so popular, however, that the jury created a special “heart” prize to reward the insight that people increasingly want to know where the things they consume come from, including the energy required to produce them.

Members of the top team got a chance to present their idea to the entire conference. They also won an internship at GE Renewable Energy in Montreal or in Sorel-Tracy as well as a two-day to trip to Niskayuna, New York, to visit GE Research, the labs that GE power pioneer Steinmetz founded. They will also each receive a mini drone.

Radue said that he came to the hackathon not knowing what to expect. “But the results blew me away,” he said. “As an industry, sometimes we need to bring in people from different walks of life and give us a nudge to innovate and put the industry back on the map where it belongs.”

 width= The winning team presented their idea to the entire conference. Image credit: Andrew Robertson for GE Reports.