Imagine condensing a century and a half into a few seconds, like a time lapse sequence: the old mill with its wheel powered by flowing water becomes a fully-digitalised hydroelectric plant controlled by sensors and managed by cloud platforms.
World Water Day, which is celebrated every year on 22 March, is an opportunity to depict the arc of progress traced by energy from water, a phenomenon that has helped power humankind’s activities from time immemorial. The event also examines water’s irreplaceable role in life in general and its importance in the story of electrical power in particular.
The oldest renewable of all
The use of water wheels dates back at least as far as ancient Greece. They became more widespread in Roman times and in the Middle Ages they began to replace human and animal muscle. This is clear from the large number of mills and millers in ancient legends and stories, folk tales and also in surnames – Mill, for example, in English.
With the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century the uses of water energy began to change. In 1870 Cragside country house in northern England became the first residence in the world to be electrified, using energy supplied by a hydraulic generator. This marked the dawn of hydroelectric energy, and the appearance of renewable sources of electricity.
Hydroelectric energy was the first type of renewable energy, and it is also the largest – globally speaking, its installed power and production far exceed those of any other renewable source.
According to data from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) for 2017, the total amount of power produced by hydroelectric plants around the world is 1,153.911 GW, which is 53% of the total generated from renewable resources: in other words, hydroelectric power alone exceeds all the other renewable resources put together. The electricity generation statistics paint an even clearer picture – according to figures produced by the International Energy Agency (IEA), hydroelectric production in 2017 reached 4,109.44 TWh, around 65% of the global renewable electricity total and 16% of the overall total. In some places it is almost the only source – in Norway, for example, 99% of the country’s electricity is produced by hydroelectric plants. The contribution made by hydroelectric generation is expected to double: the IEA predicts a figure of 2,000 GW and an annual production of over 7,000 TWh by 2050.
Also for Enel, increasingly oriented towards green energies, hydroelectric energy is still the main renewable source overall. With almost 28 GW of installed capacity out of a total of 85 GW (a share of 33% of the total), hydroelectric energy is the most important source of electricity overall. In 2017 hydroelectric production contributed 56.3 TWh to the total renewable production of 88.9 TWh, in 2018 it contributed 66.7 TWh to the total of 108.4 TWh.
The future is here: digitalisation and energy efficiency
In a rapidly changing energy scene, hydroelectric energy has remained at the forefront, taking advantage of the opportunities provided by new technology optimising efficiency and safety. Modern power stations are equipped with increasingly advanced digital systems for management, monitoring and maintenance.
In this field our Group’s innovation is at the cutting edge. The first step is gathering data. In order to do so, Enel Green Power has developed a number of projects, including Wireless Sensors for hYdro monitoring (WISY). This consists of a wireless sensor network that can gather and transmit all the information about a hydroelectric plant in real time.
To handle analysis of the data we have developed in-house an architecture enabling “Big Data Hydro”: all the information from a power plant is sent to our cloud platform, and is stored in a “data lake” that collects operational data and database information relating to plant costs and maintenance. It is then processed using statistical algorithms to identify malfunctions rapidly, preventing incidents, maximising production and reducing costs.
Digitalisation also brings benefits in terms of energy efficiency. With this in mind Enel has patented an algorithm that was then integrated into specially developed software to optimise the yield of the hydroelectric turbines, especially he Kaplan (KOOS - Kaplan Online Optimization System). Wireless systems are also used in the CLOSER – Communication in tunnels project, which enables our technicians to communicate in real time from tunnels in dams or galleries during inspections. In the case of the tunnels, the system makes use of antennae positioned at the start and end of the galleries, while the technicians have special backpacks with a small antenna and a router that allows them to use a smartphone with a special app.
We can also improve the safety of our staff, our company’s most valuable asset. That explains why we have developed smart units that can monitor the condition of special components called “trash racks”: if a trash rack is dirty, the system alerts our staff, who will then clean the component. This will prevent maintenance workers making pointless journeys (the installations are in very remote areas), reducing the risks caused by this movement.
Another development in the field of advanced analytics is the Presagho project, an Artificial Intelligence initiative that makes it possible to develop predictive models regarding incidents in our installations. At EGP, prevention is better than cure.
In addition to digital technologies, technological innovation is placing an increasing emphasis on automation. For example, when technicians have difficulties accessing conduits, they can send a robot. This is what we do, for example, at our plants in Chile. We can also use drones to monitor the state of health of a dam or power plant from the air. Another innovation in this field is the project we have launched in Italy to carry out specialised operations with drones that are also beyond the operator’s line of vision.
Environmental and social sustainability
We believe innovation should always take sustainability into account, and as a result our hydroelectric plants are also centres for the protection of the environment and biodiversity.
Our El Canadá hydroelectric plant in Guatemala stands on the Rio Samalá, one of the country’s worst-polluted rivers. However, the purification system we have installed means that its waters can now be used by local farmers to irrigate their fields. In Italy we have completed some of our most innovative projects for protecting biodiversity – the fish ladder system in the Isola Serafini dam, for example, which has encouraged the repopulation of the River Po in northern Italy, or a similar initiative for eels at the Coghinas plant in Sardinia.
The plant at El Quimbo, Colombia, is an example of convergence between environmental and social sustainability. On the one hand, we have launched a programme to extend the existing forested area around Huila by 11,000 hectares, creating the country’s largest tropical dry forest, and on the other we have responded to the needs of local communities by building new residential units and implementing practical initiatives to strengthen social and community organisations and kickstart the local economy.
The same participatory method is evident in the agreements we have signed with the Pehuenche people in three regions of Chile to launch economic development projects for the shared, sustainable management of water resources. This is the most equitable solution to ensure supply to families and produce energy at the same time. Water should always be respected, and not just on 22 March.