Skip to main content

Tour De Force: This New Software Is Helping Digitize An Ancient Source Of Energy - Water

Tomas Kellner
July 01, 2016
The city of Briançon sits in a mountainous corner of France that has become a popular destination for cycling fans, who flock to the punishing Tour de France stages there. But it may soon become a required stop for the energy geeks too.
That’s because a dam in the hills above the city recently started testing new software that allows the operators to monitor power generation in a new, revolutionary way.


The Valley of Val-des-Pres, Briancon, France 2015 The French city of Briancon may soon become a required stop for the energy geeks. Image credit: Getty Images Top image: A Francis turbine. Image credit: GE Renewable Energy

The dam above Briançon, called Pont Baldy, is relatively small – its Francis turbine can generate just 5 megawatts, enough for 3,000 homes in the valley below. But it heralds big changes.

In the past, utilities used hydropower to supply stable, base-load electricity, the minimum amount of power needed to meet demand. But that’s no longer enough, says Elisabeth Atheaux, the controls product platform leader at GE Renewable Energy. “Most water turbines are designed to produce power at a sweet spot where the output is most efficient,” Atheaux says. “But utilities are increasingly using wind and other intermittent sources to produce electricity, and they want flexible sources of power that can quickly ramp up production on the grid when the wind stops blowing.”

Operators traditionally have used gas turbines to pick up the slack, but hydropower coupled with data and analytics can be more effective.

The local utility Energie Développement Services du Briançonnais (EDSB) opened Pont Baldy in a deep, narrow valley of the Cerveyrette River in 1970 to meet spikes in power demand. In December, GE engineers installed a new acquisition and data processing platform at the site and started collecting and analyzing information such as acceleration on bearings, displacements and temperature from sensors on the small Francis turbine. “It allows us to monitor the entire system and diagnose the health of the machine, just like a doctor checking a patient’s blood pressure, temperature or any necessary real-time datasets,” says Vincent Bouillet, program manager for monitoring and diagnostics for hydropower at GE Renewable Energy.

Here’s why that’s important. A water dam may look like a really big spigot, but it doesn’t behave like one. While the faucet in the kitchen allows you to move easily from closed to open and fill a glass with water running at different speeds, hydropower dams are different. “There are certain forbidden areas in the power range where the water flow becomes turbulent, starts resembling a vortex rope and could damage the turbine,” Atheaux says. “When the load is lower, you can have vibrations. It’s like driving a car in the wrong gear. The danger forced operators to stay near the sweet spot and locked them to a constant output.”

EDSB The software is gathering information from sensors located in key parts of the turbine. Image credit: GE Renewable Energy

But with wind and solar energy streaming online – France’s installed wind capacity is more than 10,000 megawatts – they need to do more. “We need our machines to operate from zero output to 100 percent to help accommodate all that power,” Bouillet says. “The software is the key that can unlock the full range of the machines.”

Since December, the GE system has collected and analyzed more than 7 terabytes of data from the turbine. It also digested three years’ worth of temperature, maintenance and downtime data collected by the utility.

The utility and also GE engineers in Grenoble, where GE designs and makes hydro turbines, can access the data on their screen through a custom-designed 3D “human-to-machine” interface that turns the information into interactive objects. “The system is not just the software, but also the way we communicate the data in an intuitive way. We are thinking about the next generation of customers influenced by the smartphone,” says Bouillet, who designed the interface.

Atheaux, Bouillet and their teams are now expanding the system’s machine-learning capacity by connecting it to Predix, a cloud-based operating system GE developed for the Industrial Internet. Predix will allow them to compare and learn from data gathered from many dams and multiple machines. They are already planning new applications in Europe and the U.S. “We are living in a data revolution that gives our machines more power,” Bouillet says. “It makes things that were impossible just a few years ago a reality.”

PtBALDY landscape0786_42 - Copie The Pont Baldy dam. Image credit: GE Renewable Energy