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Blog: Decisions that define success in a hydro digitalisation project

Across the world, the owners and operators of hydropower projects built decades ago are weighing up the benefits of updating their systems and controls with new digital technology. The benefits include improved performance, enhanced monitoring and reduced operation and maintenance costs.

A 2018 survey by the International Hydropower Association (IHA) of a hundred senior executives and project managers in the hydropower sector shows that more than two thirds (68 per cent) have already started to digitalise their hydropower operations, while 66 per cent expect to further digitalise their systems over the next ten years.

But what are the key decisions that a project manager needs to take when embarking on digitalisation? How do you reach your objective while managing the inherent risks and keeping costs under control?

These were some of the questions that IHA sought answers for at a recent workshop organised in partnership with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the Salto Grande Technical Commission, at the Salto Grande complex located between Uruguay and Argentina. Some of the world’s leading experts including utility representatives, equipment manufacturers and private consultants shared their expertise on the topic.

Discussions focused on how digital systems are advancing the operations, maintenance and modernisation of hydropower projects, with a focus on Latin America. It was attended by more than 130 people, with representatives of IHA member and partner organisations based in the Americas, Asia and Europe.

Three main themes emerged during the discussions:

  1. Modernisation – how digitalisation processes during the modernisation of existing hydropower projects can support operating flexibility, enhanced control systems and provide tools to assist in life extension decisions.
  2. Operations – how enhanced data analytics and data analysis can optimise hydropower operations, increase overall efficiency and reduce costs.
  3. Maintenance how new sensing technologies coupled with data analytics and artificial intelligence can support data gathering and analysis to monitor assets in real time, which allows for improved asset management and maintenance planning.

Some of the key considerations for project managers and decision-makers that came out of the workshop included:

Engage senior management at an early stage

Almost all components of a hydropower plant will need replacement or upgrading at some point so, to retain an aging hydropower facility, modernisation becomes unavoidable. Engagement with senior management at the earliest stage of modernisation planning is essential to ensure that operational needs are recognised, and the risks and opportunities of digitalisation are well understood.

Assess project cost-benefits and risk

Typically, modernisation projects look to improve project performance, operating flexibility, competitiveness and risk management. The decision-making process on how and when to modernise is challenged in many organisations by limited capital, trade-offs against competing projects and ‘urgent’ maintenance needs. Digital decision-making tools such as digital twins can be utilised early on in this process to inform and optimise these decisions and reduce the financial risk of larger investments in modernisation.

Consider staff resources and practices

It is important to consider not only the financial implications but also the potential impact of digitalisation on a plant’s human resources. In other words, how will the introduction of remote operations, digitalised monitoring systems and data analytics impact staff resources and working practices? Digitalisation can provide an opportunity to reduce O&M staff costs, and at the same time new processes will require the retraining of existing staff to provide oversight or support.

Invest in skills development

Each digital system introduced to a hydropower plant involves training new or experienced hydropower operators and maintenance staff in new procedures for enhanced control systems, monitoring equipment, cyber-security, digital mapping and optimisation software. Just as important however is retaining existing technical expertise on longstanding O&M procedures which will remain relevant as newer digital systems are implemented.

Understand digitalisation at the policy level

The decision to modernise a plant can optimise the role hydropower will play in the future energy mix. It is important to engage policy-makers and regulatory authorities at the system and market level, recognising that in many regions, a strategic plan will need to be developed for multiple hydropower plants, with the potential, in some cases of significant penetration of variable renewable technologies such as wind and solar.

Your recommendations

At IHA we are always looking for feedback and recommendations from our members, partners and stakeholders. Please send your suggestions on the key considerations and decisions necessary for any digitalisation project at: bill.girling@hydropower.org


The Salto Grande workshop was part of a series of events leading up to the 2019 World Hydropower Congress to be held in Paris between 14-16 May 2019. To find out more please visit http://congress.hydropower.org/