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The Rain In Spain Gets A Brain: How Digitalization Is Boosting Iberia’s Dams

The rain in Spain does not stay mainly in the plains, as sung by Eliza Doolittle in the classic musical “My Fair Lady.” Last year it rained so much in Spain that the nation’s reservoirs allowed Spain to generate over 13% of its electricity from hydropower. In fact, so much rainwater ended up captured in Spain’s dams that the country had a hefty 8 terawatts of hydropower ready for dispatch at the beginning of 2019, the equivalent of Estonia’s entire power consumption for an entire year.

But Spain’s hydropower plant operators have further cause for celebration, along with the rain: They are also increasingly tapping the vast amounts of data their plants generate to make it work smarter. Just this week, for example, GE Renewable Energy signed a three-year deal with Enel Green Power (EGP) to monitor up to 3.2 gigawatts of the company’s hydropower plants in Spain with a mix of software and consulting services. “The hydropower industry is shifting dramatically to a much more dynamic and data-intensive approach to plant management,” says Pascal Radue, who heads up GE’s Hydro Solutions division. He said that the Italian company is taking a significant step in unleashing the potential of using data every day to cut operating costs, reduce downtime and squeeze new efficiencies from its Spanish dams.

The deal will give EGP a much clearer view of how its assets are performing. The two companies will work together to create a central bank of data about the operations of EGP’s hydropower fleet in Spain, and also collect and analyze millions of data points from sensors inside individual plants. GE-made software will allow EGP’s engineers to predict and optimize the future operations of everything from the hourly generation of its smallest dam to the availability of its whole hydropower fleet. “Hydro plants, like all industrial assets and processes, generate an enormous amount of data,” says GE Renewable Energy Chief Technology Officer Danielle Merfeld, who spoke earlier last month in the business district of La Défense in Paris. “You can transform that data into value by getting the customer’s plant to do more.”

Merfeld explained to delegates at the World Hydropower Congress how these wins can often lead power plant operators to completely reappraise their assets. “Combine all that data with predictive analytics based on machine learning and you will get some surprising results,” says Merfeld.

For example, the reliability management analytics module — part of GE’s asset performance management (APM) software — can learn the complete behavior of the turbine so that new operation areas can be identified, enabling an increase in machine production capability without degrading safety.

Such insights will be invaluable to EGP, which believes that “listening to a power plant’s ‘voice’” by gathering and analyzing data will allow it to catch problems before they occur.

GE Renewable Energy recently signed a three-year deal with Enel Green Power to monitor its hydroelectric plants. GE-made software will help Enel monitor the hourly generation of its dams and assess the availability of its entire hydropower fleet. Above image credit: GE Renewable Energy. Top image credit: GE Power.

GE says that its APM software can help hydro plant operators decrease the failure rate of their power stations by up to 50% and reduce its maintenance cost by 10% through prevention of unnecessary repairs and early detection of faulty components. Being able to avoid downtime and generate extra gigawatt-hours is critical for any plant operator selling power on the wholesale electricity market.

Another asset in GE’s performance management portfolio is the digital twin. Using several data sources, including site measurements and scaled model tests, GE Renewable Energy’s engineers can build a computer-generated replica of a hydropower plant’s runner blades. These digital twins allow utilities not only to know their power plants inside out but also to understand their weaknesses and optimal running conditions. Further, they enable the utility to get the most out of their plants by taking different performance scenarios and business models for a spin pretty much risk-free online first.

“Digitalization and digital twins allow us to define operating conditions well beyond what existed before. This allows plant operators to harness the full potential of their systems,” says Merfeld. Plant operators can maximize their revenues by enhancing their trading capabilities while providing more flexibility to the grid to accommodate the renewable energy sources.

There is more good news for digitalization. Approximately 30% of the world’s current hydro fleet is over 40 years old, especially in mature regions like Europe and North America. Digital technology makes asset management smarter by determining reliable health indexes so that machine life can be extended, and capital expenditure optimized while risk is reduced. As these hydropower assets go through retrofits and modernization, they will be able to take advantage of digital upgrades. Updating the world’s aging hydro plants to modern standards will provide the opportunity for the hydropower industry’s digital makeover.

In this context, state-run giant Energias de Portugal (EDP) is deploying GE’s APM software on 23 key hydropower plants, which produce about 5.5 GW, with the plan to extend the solution to their remaining 11 hydropower plants. Combined with EGP, GE will soon be monitoring a huge chunk of Iberia’s hydropower fleet. Today, more than 90 hydropower plants generating more than 30 GW are globally under management by GE’s APM solutions.

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