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Hydropower and EGP’s Innovation and Digitalization Challenge

5 min.

Hydropower and EGP’s Innovation and Digitalization Challenge

Enel Green Power’s hydropower plants are in the middle of a process of innovation and digitalization. Yet another example of how, at EGP, innovation and sustainability go hand in hand.

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More than 800 plants around the world, able to generate over 28 GW of power: for Enel, hydroelectric energy is one of the main renewable sources, guaranteeing 34% of the energy produced by the entire group and about 70% of its energy from green sources.

We’re talking about a set of skills and know-how to be safeguarded and innovated, especially when we consider that the plants – besides being numerous and spread around the world – are often very old, sometimes built at the end of the 1800s.

This is why Enel Green Power is carrying out an important commitment on modernizing its hydroelectric plants, that - albeit in a gradual way considering the numbers at play – follow in the wake of digitalization and innovation processes already launched for other renewable technologies, like wind and solar. 

“Hydroelectric power isn’t just the main renewable power source for the sheer quantity of energy it generates, but also, for the quality it guarantees in assuring the reliability and integrity of the whole grid network. Moreover, it allows for a manifold use of its waters - be them for drinking, irrigation and recreational uses - and it proves a fundamental asset in regulating hydraulic overflows thus safeguarding the populace from potential hazards. This is an incredible wealth that must be looked after with digitalizion and refurbishment programs.”
– Pescador Chamorro, Head Of O&M Hydro Italia – EGP


Hydroelectric energy innovation

In Italy, hydroelectric energy was among the architects of economic development in the 1950s and 1960s, when plants powered by the strength of water significantly contributed to the reconstruction of the country.

Today, the strength of water helps to generate 42% of the total energy produced by renewable sources in Italy, for a total installed capacity of 18.5 GW, equal to 46 TWh/year.

These are significant numbers, sure to rise in the coming years, thanks to plant renovation programmes.

According to a study by Althesys, recently presented in Rome and titled 'Hydropower creates value for Italy', the Italian hydroelectric fleet has a still unfulfilled potential of about 1800 MW in 2020 and 5800 MW in 2030, equivalent to a production increase of 1 TWh in 2020 and 3.4 TWh in 2030.

This potential, however, needs to be unleashed through an integrated programme of investments, which Althesys’ calculations estimate at around 5.5 billion euro.

To date – according to the study -  just 42% of the capacity built before 1960 has been modernized, with 6.7 GW of installed power still to be renovated and upgraded. 

“Hydropower, the main renewable source in Italy, with almost half of its production, is key to reaching the UN’s goals for 2030. The raising of the bar to 32% of European renewable goals is pushing our country to go beyond the National Energy Strategy and put a special plan for renewables in place for the coming decade.”
– Alessandro Marangoni - CEO of Althesys


Drones for monitoring and maintenance of hydroelectric power plants

Alongside the renovation and modernization of hydroelectric plants to promote their energy efficiency, Enel Green Power is committed to a vast programme aimed at introducing innovative technologies to improve the safety and technical-economic performance of the fleet.

One example is drones and robots to facilitate inspections in remote or confined places and optimise the resulting maintenance work. A project started in Italy but that includes EGP’s plants around the world.

In Chile, for example, we use robots to carry out inspections of penstocks – difficult for workers to access – and to take measurements of basin bottoms, to check their pitting.

But, in this area, innovation for Enel Green Power’s plants comes above all from the sky. A series of tests is underway to use drones to check – from inside and out – the health status of a plant or dam, in order to increase general plant safety and optimise maintenance processes.

In Italy, together with ENAC, the national body for flight certifications, we’ve launched a project to use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) in so-called Beyond Visual line of Sight (BVLOS) mode, for the monitoring of certain channels in the country.

It’s a very promising and useful project for the world of drones, given that it’s helping ENAC test the need and opportunity to extend current UAV regulations, fundamentally based on the Remote Pilot Aircraft Regulation, to include the possibility of carrying out specialised operations beyond the limits of the Visual Line of Sight and to modify the related regulations.


The Challenge of Digitalization       

The use of drones and robots is part of EGP’s broader commitment to transform its hydropower plants – like what it has done with solar and wind – into a winning model of digitalization.

On a global scale, digitalization can be fundamental for Enel Green Power in all its Operation & Maintenance (O&M) activities, in order to reduce intervention and maintenance costs, achieve greater safety and, consequently, an increase in production efficiency.

For a hydroelectric plant, digitalization means the integration of different technologies, linked, for example, to the Internet of Things (IoT), to wireless sensors, able to provide a large amount of data (Big Data), reducing installation costs, testing new protocols for connectivity and allowing for the collection of data even in remote, not always equipped, places, aimed at smart diagnostics and predictive maintenance.

Examples of technologies tested or in the monitoring phase are acoustic sensors, MEMS (Micro Electro Mechanical Systems), wireless sensors with Energy Harvesting solutions for weather stations, in correspondence with intake works, or to monitor the status of plant machinery.

Then there are the low-cost wireless weather sensors, able to self-power and so perfect for remote, difficult-to-access areas. The goal, also in this case, is to increase plant safety and improve and optimise O&M processes, in order to reduce costs. At the moment, wireless weather sensors have been installed and tested in Chile, with twelve stations, and in Italy, with eleven.

The numerous data collected from plants are sent to our cloud platform – a real “Data Lake” – and analysed with algorithms developed and customised for hydroelectric, with the goal of having an accurate picture of the plant’s health status and allow for more effective maintenance. 


Our Commitment to Sustainable development

Next to innovation and digitalization, EGP is always committed to the well-being of local communities, in line with the sustainable development goals in the UN’s 2030 Agenda.

To reach these ambitious goals, we put new solutions and new ideas to work for the environment, like the ones we are searching for on our Open Innovability platform for a new sustainability project in Colombia, where we want to reduce pollution in the Rio Bogotá, in the El Muña basin, near our Paraíso and Guaca hydropower plants.

Unfortunately, the river is one of the most contaminated in South America and so we called on innovators, start-ups and companies to come up with a technologically advanced and low-cost solution to reduce emissions and purify the air in the most critical areas of the basin.

In a world that’s moving faster and faster, EGP is in the front lines to add value to its internal skills and search for new ideas in order to stimulate the essential combination of innovation and sustainability. 

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