The nation’s largest hydropower producers are partnering with Chelan County PUD to ensure that hydroelectric power remains the most reliable, renewable energy source for decades to come. The Hydropower Research Institute (HRI) is a data-sharing collective intended to help hydropower facilities save money on maintenance and better predict mechanical failures.
The nonprofit was founded in 2018 when Chelan County PUD teamed up with Southern Company, one of the country’s largest utilities, based in the southeast U.S. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers joined HRI in 2019.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Department of Energy are HRI’s newest partners. The Bureau of Reclamation operates 53 hydropower facilities, which generates enough energy to power nine million homes.
“The Bureau is a big deal because it’s the second-largest hydroelectric generator in the country. They have lots of data,” said Kirk Hudson, HRI president and Chelan PUD’s managing director of generation and transmission.
Combined, the partners represent more than 40% of the nation’s hydroelectric capacity.
The Department of Energy will use the combined data for research at its Water Power Technologies Office and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Recently, its research showed that operations and maintenance costs for many aging hydroelectric facilities are rising.
“Our business model fails if our equipment doesn’t last as long as predicted,” said John Yale, Chelan PUD Hydro Plant Engineering Manager. The PUD operates 31 generators, each valued in the tens of millions of dollars. “By modeling how equipment will age under certain operating conditions, we can anticipate how things such as turbine blades will age over time.”
For Yale it’s all about the numbers. Instead of collecting information solely from its 31 units, the PUD now has access to information from 669 units from 164 plants nationwide.
“The real driver is that we don’t have enough data to do it alone with statistical accuracy,” he said. “We now have access to data about operations and failures at other hydro facilities that we haven’t experienced, which gives us ways to predict the impact of our operations on equipment and better manage these assets.”
A PUD machine failure at its Rock Island hydropower site in 2017 resulted in about $1.5 million in expenses due to repair work and lost revenue. However, data from this incident proved highly valuable to NorthWestern Energy, which had indications of a similar flaw. As a result, the company was able to preemptively make their fixes earlier – and at a time of low system demand. The total cost was $150,000, a fraction of the PUD’s expenses. HRI provides the means for such proactive repair work.
“The better you can predict when failures might show up, the better you can plan for them and avoid the failure,” said Hudson. “It also allows us to take a unit down for repairs when we have less river water to operate rather than times of high water or peak demand.”
When utilities with hydropower can produce energy with lower maintenance costs and less downtime, it creates better reliability and value for customers nationwide. In addition, as the country moves away from carbon-producing energy sources, hydropower will be relied upon more as a clean energy source and for its flexibility, Hudson said.
“The bottom line is becoming more predictive allows us to respond with planned outages rather than forced outages,” Hudson said. “The more those machines are running, the fewer emergencies we have and the less costly those repairs are. That provides better value to our customers.”