Department of Energy joins Hydropower Research Institute

Department of Energy joins Hydropower Research Institute
Since its creation in 2018, the Hydropower Research Institute has added the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and most recently the U.S. Department of Energy, to its membership. Photo: freepik.com

Several years ago a group of public and private utilities along with several federal government agencies formed the Hydropower Research Institute (HRI), a data-sharing, paid membership-based nonprofit intended to improve energy generation at hydropower facilities. In the past year, the organization has been joined by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and has most recently added the U.S. Department of Energy to its membership.

Along with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) as an original HRI member, the institute also now has added the two largest hydropower producers in the country.

“It’s a big deal in terms of the amount of data,” HRI President Kirk Hudson told Lens. Hudson is also the generation and transmission managing director for Chelan PUD, which operates four hydro dams in central Washington.

The Bureau of Reclamation’s 53 hydropower facilities, including the Chandler Powerplant in Benton City, generates enough to power the residential homes of nine million Americans.

HRI operates as a data-aggregation and data-sharing site amongst members in order to improve their use, maintenance, repair and replacement of hydropower equipment such as turbines. As a result, HRI members such as the Atlanta-based Southern Company have access to data from USACE facilities that operate in different environments and conditions.

But for right now, Hudson said their main task is collecting the data from 164 separate hydro plants and uploading it to the site. So far, they have uploaded the data from 22.

“That’s what we’re going to be doing for research,” he said. The more data we have, the more we can determine what the priority will be for the research. We really think this is the way to improve the reliability and capability of the hydro fleet.”

With DOE on board, HRI will have even more data to add. Although the federal agency doesn’t operate any facilities, it conducts research and development through its Water Power Technologies Office (WPTO) and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). Last year, the agency announced it was offering $26.1 million in funding for projects intended to improve hydropower capabilities. In 2014, ORNL released the first Hydropower Market Report that examined the nations’ hydropower capabilities. Its 2017 market report noted that issues such as aging equipment and other factors “requires plants to be operated in new and different ways.”

The report also found that aside from the largest hydropower facilities, operation and maintenance costs had increased in the past 10 years faster than the rate of inflation.

For WPTO and ORNL, the HRI presents a “one stop shop” to access an enormous amount of hydro data for further research purposes that could help reverse that trend. WPTO and ORNL officials told Lens that the data collection will enable them to spot patterns in how the equipment operates under various circumstances, including the rate at which normal wear and tear necessitates repairs or replacement. Currently that is difficult to determine with turbines, because they are custom designed for their location.

In practice, operators take a conservative approach with maintenance and major upgrades rather than risk a costly forced outage. The hope is that accurate and broad data provided through HRI will allow to more accurately gauge when equipment has reached its end-of-life cycle.

Not only would that allow them to stretch out the use of hydro equipment further, but also operators would be able to focus their repair and maintenance resources on machines in need of replacement. While for ratepayers the reduced operating costs means a lower energy bill, WPTO and ORNL officials emphasized the important role hydropower plays in providing energy stability, particularly for other clean energy sources such as wind and solar. That role will be even greater in Washington, where all utilities will have to provide 100 percent carbon-neutral energy by 2035 and 100 percent clean energy by 2045.

Another long-term potential is to find ways to improve machine efficiency, though facilities are around 90 percent efficient already.

“We haven’t really had any development along those lines, but we expect to going forward,” Hudson said.

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