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Hydroelectric Projects: Conceptualization, Commissioning and Operations (1 of 3)

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In a series of posts I (Javier) will write about my experience with different Hydroelectric Projects, in Venezuela and in Canada, from the point of view of a Project Manager, a Maintenance Engineer, and a Plant Manager, different roles that I have been held for the past 16 years. I think that this experience can be transferred to other fields on the renewable energy industry, like solar, wind, tidal and geothermal. I invite you folks to share your own experiences as well, and in fact suggest themes to talk about, in regards of renewable energy projects in general.

The idea of these post is to start conversations and debates around the topic.

This is my first article here on LinkedIn, and my first post in the blog, and I hope to be the first of many. Again, all suggestions are welcomed!

Post #1: A clear project vision

What do you want to accomplish with your project?

This is in fact the most important question that requires the most important and honest answer. A hydroelectric project can serve many objectives, apart of the obvious one which is generate renewable energy. In fact, sometimes the energy generation is a “sub-product” of a different main objective. One thing though: mother nature puts the rules, always.

  • Flood control: you may want to have a dam to control the behavior of a river, and have the added value of generating energy. In that case, the design priority is not the maximum energy output of the water being accumulated in the pond, but the control itself of that water.
  • Grid voltage support on remote locations: generally, small units are strategically located to help to maintain the voltage in rural areas, where a more robust transmission system, or the lack of a big enough generation station closer enough to the location, makes maintaining the voltage quite a challenge. In those cases, you need to be able to keep your units running 24/7, so maybe you need to reduce the water inflow (and in consequence the power output) of your units so your water source is being kept on a healthy level to allow a continuous operation. Several of the small hydro plants in Nova Scotia follow this philosophy.
  • Feed an energy intensive industrial development: like a steel mill, the aluminum production industry, or a pulp mill. An interesting example is the Caroni river in Venezuela. Originally, the first hydro plant development in the late 50’s and early 60’s, Macagua 1, was designed to feed the operations and expansion of the steel and aluminum industry in the south of the country. Because of that, the units and the transmission and distribution system had specific characteristics that make them more robust to the violent load changes that a process like aluminum production and steel melt using electric arcs induces in the grid. The same grid that is used by people and businesses.
  • Peak loads: a project can be designed to supply renewable, cheap and reliable energy on specific times of the day, where the peak loads occur. In that case, your objective is to use the maximum amount of water possible on the specific window of operation (could be just a few hours, less than 6 sometimes), so your units in fact are designed to run at peak performance for short periods of time. This has consequences in the mechanical and electrical design of the plant equipment (excluding the BOP, well, depending on the specific case), as well on the way that the water is managed. I do the analogy between two motorsport events: Formula One and Lemans 24 hrs. In this case, you are designing a F1 car. In our first example a few paragraphs ago, you are designed an Endurance Turismo. Two philosophies, two different events, one goal. Pump Storage plants follow this philosophy generally.
  • Energy source substitution: your objective may be to remove fossil fuels from your grid for example. In that case, it is important to be realistic in terms of the power output of your plant, and how it will efficiently work to substitute that energy source (will be on peaks only, or 24/7? How much water do you have available year-round and seasonally?). Sometimes a full substitution is not possible, so keep that in mind and be clear to the people that will approve the project what are its limitations. Sometimes a realistic considerable reduction on fossil fuel generation instead of a full substitution makes a better technical and financial case.
  • A technological experiment: maybe you want to partner with an OEM to develop a plant to test new technology. If that is the case, it is important to be clear to the grid operator that the energy output will not be reliable, because the main objective is to experiment with technology, not necessarily reliability. Specific design considerations to the grid design or upgrade, and especially a close collaboration with the grid operator is a must from the earliest stages of the design. Big OEM’s had experimental facilities around the world with such characteristics.
  • Energy export: maybe you are not looking to serve your local market, but to export excess of hydroelectric capacity. In this case, generally the plants are designed to run 24/7 to get the maximum financial benefit of it, as well, the transmission system is designed as robust as possible to guarantee maximum reliability and availability. Water management is critical and priority (you need to run 24/7) so maybe you don’t want the theoretical maximum output to keep a good handle of your reservoir.

And please, add more possible goals in the comments.
In all the cases, it is important to be clear on the goal, because it will be the main driver of the design of your plant, from the dam itself, to all the equipment associated, and as well will be important to understand how you will operate the facility, and the human factor associated to it. We will talk about that in a few paragraphs.

Feasibility: environmental, technical, economical

  • Environmental feasibility: The most important. Determine with enough in-depth studies what will be the environmental impact of your project in the river, the pond and its surroundings, in all aspects. We are not talking about just follow the environmental regulations of the project location, but to really measure what will be the impact of the project during construction, commissioning, and during the years of operations. Having the right measures in place to mitigate or eliminate negative impacts are primordial and should be given priority attention and priority funds.
  • Community impact: in not a few cases, a community lives close to a hydro site. The project team needs to consider the impact on their lives and economy during the early stages of conceptualization. In mega-projects (Venezuela’s Caroni development for example) some small towns were fully demobilize due to the flood of the pond. That came with a cost, not just a financial one. This is of course a more technical discussion, but I thought that it is worth to mention it to keep it on our minds. Resources needs to be assigned with high priority to assess the impacts in the surrounding communities, not only during the construction stages, but as well through the entire life cycle of the project. Social studies professionals are more capable for this kind of analysis than us engineers, so is always good to listen to them. A good reference for the audience to start to dig a little bit around the topic can be found here.
  • Economics of the project: something that will be part of a dedicated post for sure. The entire economic study of a hydro project, no matter its size (but the bigger, the more complex it gets) is an exercise that involves specialized resources and a dedicated team. The obvious critical part of the economics’ studies is the risk analysis and the risk management plan. One aspect though that came from experience is that is not an exercise for just the start of the project, it is a continuous exercise, with several revisions as the project evolves and goes through its life. The economic studies need to include a supply chain analysis for the operations phase as well, something that sometimes is overlooked. Securing good support contracts with critical suppliers of goods and services can help to get better prices and improve the life of the operations’ team once the project is completed. The economic study as well needs to engage the social and community impact study’s team.
  • Technical feasibility: this is probably the easiest part of all, the basic engineering and detailed engineering are well known process and the technology available for the hydro industry is very well backed up internationally. What I want to make emphasis though, is that it is important to plan for the future, and be clear how many years do you expect to have from your facility without major changes, upgrades or overhauls. As well, how do you want to operate, we will talk about that in the next paragraph, and what level of service and with what speed you will have it if is needed on an emergency. Since conceptualization, you need to engage with the OEM’s to address how “future proof” will be your facility, and, very important, understand that some of the equipment that you will order now can be obsolete or discontinued in 5-10 years, so you need to work with your OEM on specs for equipment that, in many cases, still does not exist or are in different R&D stages.

How do you plan to operate?

This is probably a question that sometimes is overlooked as well. Project teams are extremely focused and biased on delivery the project, but don’t think to much about how it will operate. Establishing how it will operate since the beginning of the conceptualization is crucial, because it will direct several decisions on equipment and facility design in general.

  • Fully local operations: in this case, the facility will operate with an operations and maintenance team on site 24/7. This is common in large plants, which require attention and constant inspection of the equipment. As well, in remote areas where there is no support close enough to address emergency situations. The human factor needs to be accounted, and the safety and security of the personnel must be the priority. The entire complex should be designed for hosting a team 24/7, in some cases including full accommodations. In several cases, a small town needs to be founded to address this and be able to recruit and maintain enough qualified personnel for your site. This came with a whole lot of additional scopes, which as ell and again, involves the social aspect of these projects. This needs to be accounted for in the life cycle cost of the project.
  • Local operations and seasonal maintenance: this involve maintaining a small team for operations and an on-call / seasonal maintenance team. This can be achieved in locations where a community is close enough to offer accommodations to the personnel. Facilities should be designed with that in mind, with limited accommodations, but ensuring that emergency services for the safety and security of the personnel will be present and accounted for in the life cycle cost analysis. Normally the operators are present 24/7, and the maintenance is performed following an annual plant, with planned support from the OEM’s of different equipment. Contracts for specialized maintenance needs to be in place, and preferable negotiate even before the commissioning of the equipment.
  • Fully remote operations: In this case the operations are conducted from a remote location, a control center located in a different geographic area. It is common on very remote facilities. In this case, expect to spend heavily on capital to account for backup over backup over backup of different systems, as well in state-of-the-art of on-site diagnostics and data acquisition for all the systems and subsystems of your entire site, not just the generation equipment. Remote vigilance should be accounted for, in many cases on site security must be present if the risk assessment recommends that. When this is the preferred way to go, you need to think about building a fully self-sufficient facility, basically a fortress, that can operate without human intervention for many months, and develop as many different emergency and problem scenarios as possible, and establish contingency plans, through equipment and capital investments, to mitigate the risks of those scenarios. This is the most expensive approach in terms of capital, but the cheapest in terms of labor cost.

Final thoughts on post #1

These are just a few thoughts based on my years of experience in the industry, especially with hydro plants. In my opinion, the most important stage of these kind of projects is the planning stage. My two cents: don’t be afraid of spend money and time on planning, I’ll save you a lot of time and money during the execution, and specially a ton of headaches. I let the discussion open, and please suggest more topics to talk about.
This post will be posted as well at the AEE Canada East Blog, and at the Hysovent website Blog (website still under construction).

Some lessons based on experience

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