Blog: How can we improve hydropower technologies?
To achieve growth in hydropower, innovation is needed to improve technologies, writes Simon Hamlyn, CEO of the British Hydropower Association.
Hydropower is one of the world’s leading sources for power generation and currently generates a significant percentage of our electricity worldwide. It is considered to be the most flexible and consistent renewable energy source because it has low operational and maintenance costs and on average, a scheme can last around 80 to 100 years, with very little maintenance.
Hydropower also outlasts the likes of nuclear, wind farms and solar power schemes. This has prompted governments from countries such as Canada, Uruguay, Indonesia and Nepal to emphasise the need for increased investment in hydropower, in order to achieve sustainable development in the Hydropower Status Report.
But to achieve this growth, research and development into innovation is vitally important. So, what can we do to improve hydropower technologies?
Innovation in hydropower
Despite impressive statistics from Norway, there remains significant scope for innovation in hydropower that can further improve and reduce overall costs for the energy industry, making this form of renewable energy more accessible. It is estimated that nearly a billion people in the world today have no access to electricity - this is around14 per cent of the world’s population. Increasing access to clean forms of energy makes a critical contribution to achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, set by the United Nations to ensure universal access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy services by 2030.
What improvements are needed?
Unlike other forms of renewable energy, the basic principles of hydropower technology have not changed in hundreds of years meaning it’s not naturally an innovative technology. In fact, hydropower is truly an “age-old” tool with some records of its use dating back to more than 2,000 years ago in ancient Greece where water wheels were used to grind wheat into flour.
The basic principle of water flowing through turbines to create energy is unlikely to change. But, in recent months, there has been a major emphasis on innovation in the digitalisation of processes that will provide significant benefits to the renewable energy industry, such as smarter electricity systems, drone use or artificial intelligence.
This is a key future research area as this type of digitalisation can provide more sophisticated data which in turn will assist energy generators to better predict how their infrastructure will perform over time, including when the hardware needs maintenance for more efficient operation.
Barriers to innovation in hydropower
Commitment to innovation spurs early success. However, there are some significant barriers to progress and one of the largest is finance.
Even though significant reductions have been made into the costs of some renewable energy, the infrastructure set up costs of hydropower are not reducing, making deployment in many countries difficult. Investors require greater certainty, especially in developing countries, meaning the funds are not always available.
The cost of battery storage also presents a barrier. Battery storage can provide “dispatchable power,” meaning it can be stored and delivered when there is demand, rather than only at the time it’s being generated. Generally, the costs of the batteries themselves are decreasing, but the problem for hydropower is how much it would cost to install batteries to existing hydropower schemes.
Some hydropower schemes use traditional “pumped storage”, which is the oldest kind of large-scale energy storage. It has a simple principle - two reservoirs are required at different altitudes and when water is released from the upper reservoir into the other, power is generated. The water is then pumped back up to the upper reservoir and the cycle continues. This, however, uses power to create power so it is a net user of electricity, whereas battery storage is not. But retro-fitting batteries are challenging and expensive and many energy companies prefer to spend that money on building new hydropower schemes instead.
Opportunities for funding in hydropower
Financing is a vitally important factor when it comes to developing new renewable energy innovations, but funding opportunities are not always easy to come by.
One area where funding is currently available is within tidal stream. This is where the horizontal flow of water in the ocean, caused by the tide, turns underwater turbines to create energy.
There is also tidal range technology that utilises the difference in head between the sea and a basin. The basin is usually formed by a barrage across an estuary or bay or by a lagoon wall. As the tide ebbs and rises it creates a difference in the water level between the sea and the basin. Water then flows through turbines which in turn drive generators to provide renewable electricity.
There is a lot of interest in this type of technology, meaning opportunities for funding can be competitive.
One organisation, named Ocean DEMO, recently opened their first call applications for technology developers to test their products in a real sea environment at Ocean DEMO’s test centers. They were offering support packages enabling developers to test multi-device farms or single devices that could potentially be scaled up to a multi-device in the future.
This is funded by Interreg North-West Europe and is a €13 million (about $14.4 million) project. The aim is to accelerate innovation by providing access to their world-leading test centers. The project is an opportunity for growth in the hydropower industry and also an opportunity for developers to prove whether their products are investable or not. If successful, it could significantly improve ocean technologies’ competitiveness and further drive innovation throughout the supply chain.
Another organisation supporting innovation is the British Hydropower Association, the non-governmental trade membership organisation dedicated to representing the interests of the UK hydropower community. Hydropower is one of the most reliable, predictable and least environmentally intrusive of all the renewable energy technologies and the BHA strives to ensure that the full potential and associated economic and community benefits are fully realised.
People at the forefront of hydropower innovation
When it comes to the development of such an “age-old” technology, innovation can be difficult. But some individuals are paving the way for a more sustainable future.
Recently, at the World Hydropower Congress, a select few were awarded for being at the forefront of innovation:
- Martina Botter, a PhD student at ETH Zurich in Switzerland, for providing key research that created a decision support system to test new hydropower operation strategies to adapt to a changing climate whilst factoring in economic contexts.
- Weilia Yang, a research associate professor at Wuhan University, for offering an assessment framework that illuminates points of burden on hydropower units. By highlighting the weak points, she is able to balance the energy we receive from power systems.
- Karin Seelos, the VP of Power Generation and International Affairs, was recognised for her long-standing commitment to hydropower sustainability, which has had a major impact on the profession.
- Refaat Abdel Malek, the Vice Chairman of MWH Global, for his contributions to the development of the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol.
- Yan Zhiyong, Chairman of Power Construction Corporation of China, was recognised for his contribution to the development of China’s hydropower industry and for his commitment to implement sustainability practices.
Innovation is inevitable, and technologies, digital or not, will progress as time goes on because it has to. Sustainable clean energy sources are vital to the future of our planet and with a little bit of commitment to innovation, we can get there sooner than we think.
Simon Hamlyn is CEO of the British Hydropower Association. This article was written in conjunction with NES Global Talent.