Hydropower project “new frontier” for clean energy

Hydropower project “new frontier” for clean energy
The Chelan County PUD, Atlanta-based Southern Company and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have formed the Hydropower Research Institute to encourage data-sharing that promotes cost-savings and greater efficiency. Photo: freepik.com

A Senate bill approved this session by state lawmakers will require Washington state utilities to provide carbon-neutral energy by 2035 and to achieve100 percent clean energy by 2045. While such policies rely on legal mandates and penalties for utilities that fail to comply, Chelan County Public Utility District (PUD) hopes to spur greater use of clean energy provided by hydropower through a new cooperative, data-sharing nonprofit. Those advancements may play an important role not only in keeping rates low, but also providing enough energy to maintain system reliability as Washington transitions away from coal and other carbon-producing energy sources.

“We recognize that hydro’s going to be relied (on) more and more in the clean energy future,” Chelan PUD Generation and Transmission Managing Director Kirk Hudson said. “How do we make it more reliable and more flexible so we can fill the gaps that are out there?”

Hudson is also the president of the Hydropower Research Institute (HRI), a paid membership-based nonprofit founded by the Chelan County PUD, Atlanta-based Southern Company and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). Altogether, the three handle 100 hydro plants and 30 percent of all hydropower-generated energy in the country.

“The producers are all cooperating and working together to make sure that those barriers to sharing data actually come down and benefits return to the producer,” Hudson said. “Each of those organizations have a different reason for really stepping out and saying we want to be a part of it. This is the way to do that, and at the same time we all benefit from more data than our own.”

With the Rocky Reach, Rock Island and Lake Chelan dams, Chelan County PUD provides electricity to three million customers. In April, the PUD published a white paper with the National Hydropower Association advocating, among other things, improvements to “hydro project performance,” one of several goals Hudson says HRI aims to achieve.

“There’s been a lot of improvements made in the hydro system over the years,” he said. “A lot of them have been focused on the machine design…to make them more efficient, to get more energy out of the same amount of water and to make them more fish-friendly.”

The idea for the institute first germinated in 2015 during the PUD’s strategic planning, Hudson said. “We recognized that…data analytics was likely the new frontier for hydro system improvements. We recognized right away the key is having large volumes of data and being able to manage that. We thought the best way to do it was to do it in coordination with hydropower owners, because it’s very expensive to do it ourselves, (and) we would only have access to our data.”

The PUD has since begun aggregating hydropower data with Southern Company, one of the largest electricity producers in the country with 4.68 million customers. Most of their energy is generated by natural gas (47 percent), with 14 percent from renewable sources.

“They have a lot more plants…but they have similar challenges,” Hudson said.

The third founder is the USACE, the largest hydro operator in the country that manages 75 plants and generates approximately 25 percent of the nation’s total hydropower. The federal agency’s dams along the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest generate 70 percent of its total power. While USACE owns and operates those hydro plants, the energy is marketed by the U.S. Department of Energy.

USACE Hydro Program Manager Daniel Rabon told Lens that for them, the institute offers a central hub to share data scattered throughout the agency. “What you currently have are about 75 islands of data sitting out there and are somewhat unavailable at a corporate or even regional level. We pulled in a couple pilot projects into HRI, and one of our projects had data all the way back to 2002, which is awesome, (but) it’s all here on hard drives on the shelf, so it doesn’t do us any good there. The HRI allows us to go across the corps, take these 75 islands of data, and put them into a common location but also with a common taxonomy.”

While the USACE was previously collecting live hydro plant operational data, Rabon said “what we haven’t done is…the aggregation of that data in a way that informs us more than just in the right now.” The HRI is “a great example of where the industry saw a need and we were able to partner and do this.”

Like Chelan PUD, another USACE goal is to improve daily operations as well as long-term capital investments such as turbine replacements that can take two years to order and install.

“It’s really trying to get ahead of that,” Rabon said. “If we have a generator fail tomorrow, (it’s) six months to a year out of operation – could be longer depending on the damage. Had we…known that ahead of time…we would have been able to predict that and maybe get a repair contract in place to fix this ahead of time. It’s really costly to federal hydropower whenever we have these unexpected outages.”

Hudson said the PUD has already seen the potential cost-savings through this approach. After a machine-failure for one of the PUD’s hydro facilities ended up costing $1.5 million due to repairs and lost revenue from the forced outage, that information was shared with another utility provider. That company was then able to identify the same flaw in their machines and fix it before it failed. Because they were able to schedule the work in advance and at a time when system demand was low, it only cost them $150,000.

Chelan County PUD and HRI External Affairs Director Tracy Yount told Lens that kind of foreknowledge can substantially reduce repair and maintenance costs moving forward. “It’s a lot different if you take a unit down during a peak demand period versus a time when we don’t have enough river water to operate the unit.”

Hudson added that “the better you can predict when failures might show up, the better you can plan for them and avoid the failure. If we know hydropower’s going to be relied (on) more and more in a clean energy future, how do we keep the machines up and running? We expect if we are better at analyzing the data coming from that instrumentation, we could see problems coming before they occur.”

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