Skip to main content

Hydropower Catches The Digital Wave

Richard Taylor International Hydropower Association Ceo
Debora Frodl Ge
March 24, 2017

Digital solutions promise to improve economic and environmental outcomes, write Debora Frodl, Global Executive Director at GE Ecomagination, and Richard Taylor, CEO of the International Hydropower Association.



One of the world’s most established sources of electricity is getting a makeover using twenty-first century technologies—and the results could transform the global electric power system. General Electric (GE) and the International Hydropower Association (IHA) have partnered to examine the impact that digital hydropower solutions could have on the global electricity network. The preliminary results of this research will be available in May at the 2017 World Hydropower Congress in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Early indications suggest that the environment, electricity consumers and products will all benefit as hydropower catches the digital wave.

On September 30th, 1882, the world's first hydroelectric power plant began operation on the Fox River in Appleton, Wisconsin. The plant was initiated by Appleton paper manufacturer H.J. Rogers, who had been inspired by Thomas Edison's Pearl Street Station, which began operating earlier the same month. Edison’s Pearl Street Station used coal to create steam to drive its generators. Alternatively, the Appleton hydropower plant used the natural energy of the Fox River. It was the world’s first renewable power plant. It produced power more reliably than the Pearl Street Station and without the associated air pollutants.

 width= The world's first hydroelectric power plant. Credit: “Dam across river, Appleton, Wis.,” 1880-1889. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number LC-D4-4783 DLC.

Hydropower has since grown to become one of the largest sources of electricity. According to the International Hydropower Association (IHA), in 2016 installed hydropower capacity reached 1,246 gigawatts (GW), including 150 GW of pumped storage and generation topped 4,100 TWh, representing about 20 percent of total global electricity generation. Hydropower is widespread because it has many advantages, which include reliability, proven technology, large storage capacity, and low operating and maintenance costs, and no air pollutants. Hydropower is also highly flexible, a precious asset for electricity network operators.

Given hydropower’s ubiquitous role in electricity networks across the globe, new innovations will have ripple effects across the system. Incremental improvements in hydropower output could provide new electricity to millions of people. Enhancements in hydropower’s ability to respond to variable generation from intermittent generation sources would greatly expand the ability of grids to add new low-carbon intermittent options such as solar and wind power.

The digitization of hydropower plants, control systems and surrounding networks is an emerging industry trend that promises to optimize asset management and performance. The net result will be an increase in output, reduction in costs and expansion of hydropower capabilities. For example, the digitization of hydropower systems is increasingly being implemented to allow hydro to work together with other renewable resources to provide increased flexibility and enhanced control for ancillary services. Other digital innovations include cybersecurity, plant and fleet optimization, outage management, condition monitoring and energy forecasting. Together, these innovations are providing hydropower asset owners with actionable insights from data to increase the value of hydropower assets while minimize the environmental impact of electricity generation.

The digitization of hydropower is an industry-wide trend with the potential to positively impact power networks around the world. By 2020, electric utilities will spend $90 billion implementing digital technologies. GE is helping to usher in the digital hydropower era by levering GE’s Industrial Internet operating system. Predix is the Industry’s most powerful operating system – connecting hardware to digital software to drive deep analytics and revenue-driving insights.

GE’s Predix-based Digital Hydro Plant is a nimble suite of end-to-end apps that seamlessly integrate software intelligence into hardware assets and control systems to enable new economic outcomes and opportunities across the business and operations to maximize the capability of the plant. It all starts with the Asset Performance Management (APM) digital suite that provides visibility and insight into machine and equipment help with connectivity, data management, condition monitoring, data analysis and visualization, and event and recommendation management. Leveraging the power of this digital technology provides GE customers with the increased visibility into their asset performance to decrease costs and increase revenue.

 width= Bujagali Low Head Hydropower Plant on the Nile river in Uganda, featuring five 51MW Kaplan generating units.

APM services are driving improvements in hydro availability and reliability. For example, intelligent condition-monitoring application can save as much as $4,000/MW/year in reduced maintenance costs, improved asset life and higher operational efficiency. GE is currently implementing APM services at a wide range of customer sites. Initial Digital Hydro Plant customers are experiencing reliability improvements of 1 percent or greater If these improvements are to be scaled across the global hydropower fleet, that would amount to 413 GWh of incremental hydro generation due to increased uptime. That’s equivalent to the electrical output from over 700 wind turbines.

It is fitting that one of the first power generation technologies created in the nineteenth century is now at the vanguard of the digital revolution of the twenty-first century. The global reach of legacy hydropower infrastructure and a century of operating experience have positioned hydropower to expand its critical role in digitally transformed power networks of the future. Indeed, fueled by new hydropower innovations such as digital technologies, the International Energy Agency (IEA) expects hydropower output to double by 2050.

GE and IHA are excited to play a role helping to enable the new world of digital hydropower come to fruition. Welcome to the future of energy.

(Top graphic: Courtesy Getty Images.)


Debora FrodlDebora Frodl is Global Executive Director at GE Ecomagination.





 width=Richard Taylor is Chief Executive of the International Hydropower Association and a fellow of the U.K. Energy Institute in London. 




All views expressed are those of the authors.