Blog: Digitisation - a revolution for the hydroelectric sector

One of the first power generation technologies, created in the nineteenth century, is at the forefront of the digital revolution of the twenty-first century.

Digital technology has been present in the electric sector since its inception, given its nature of a high technological level. Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition systems (known as SCADA) have been common in power systems for decades. Likewise, the use of advanced computer models for planning, sizing and simulation of generation, transmission and distribution systems is a business-as-usual application of technology in the sector.

Nonetheless, despite the strong familiarity of this sector with digitalisation, the new wave of innovation, called 'Industrial Revolution 4.0', promises to bring profound changes to the way we build, design, operate and maintain our electrical systems, going far beyond the simple use of computer models and isolated SCADA systems.

There are four main factors that have changed in recent years:

  • The increase in computing capacity of the processors (which went from less than 1 MHz in the 1970s to 4 GHz in 2017);
  • The reduction of the cost of these processors;
  • The increase in the capacity of communication networks , which allow for the processors and digital systems to be combined with each other, even remotely, multiplying the processing capacity;
  • The development of new algorithms for the analysis and management of data (including 'artificial intelligence').

These factors have created the ideal conditions for exponential growth in the number and capacity of digitalisation applications, which in turn provides immense possibilities in the electricity sector.

The new possibilities are not trivial for Latin America, particularly within the hydroelectric sector, which provides about half of the electricity in this region and is the main source of generation in many countries. Many of these hydropower plants were installed several decades ago and digitisation will be an essential element to rehabilitate, modernise and maintain them as part of a sustainable and secure electricity matrix. However, the subject is still not widely explored and exploited in the region.    

Digital technology at the Salto Grande hydroelectric complex

In this context, it is worth asking: "What is the difference between what we have been doing in the Latin American hydropower sector, and what will come from the hand of digitisation?"

To answer this question, we organised a workshop to exchange experiences with key actors from the hydropower sector*. During this workshop, hydropower industry experts showed how digitisation has become a powerful tool to improve decision-making processes in organisations that manage hydroelectric plants, helping to optimise water resource management.

In addition, case studies showed that digitisation is taking a key role, allowing hydropower generation to support the increasing penetration of intermittent renewable energy such as wind power and solar photovoltaic.

To read more about the key trends discussed at the workshop, visit the Inter-American Development Bank's website.

*The workshop was organised jointly with the International Hydropower Association (IHA) and the Mixed Technical Commission of Salto Grande at the Salto Grande hydroelectric plant. It brought together more than 130 people and had exhibitors of the highest level, including electricity companies China Three Gorges Corporation (CTG), EDF, EDP and Itaipu Binacional; equipment suppliers GE, Andritz, Voith and Brookfield; and consulting firms such as Hatch and Stantec.

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