Modernizing Hydropower with Digital Twins

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June 2, 2021 | Originally published by PNNL on May 24, 2021

In April 2019, the 850-year-old Notre Dame cathedral was destroyed in a fire.

A mammoth effort is now underway to rebuild the 12th century monument in time for the 2024 Olympics in Paris. To restore the cathedral to its original glory, scientists and designers from around the world are creating a “digital twin” of the building.

The digital twin integrates tens of billions of 3D coordinates, archived photograph collections, and construction sketches to create a database of scientific and technical data about the cathedral to aid in its restoration.

The digital twin concept is also being used to solve more complex science and engineering problems. One of the most significant applications in the works is using digitalization to modernize the nation’s aging hydropower plant fleet.

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) are collaborating on a project, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Water Power Technologies Office, to create the Digital Twins for Hydropower framework. Over the next five years, PNNL and ORNL are expected to develop a virtual, open-access platform that creates a digital representation of hydroelectric plants using virtual and real-time data and feedback to optimize operations.

The platform will serve as a place for the hydropower industry to evaluate and replace mechanical components, accelerate technology development, and improve hydropower operations and performance. These improvements reduce service downtime and shutdowns, which interfere with delivering electricity to the grid.

“The goal here is for hydropower to remain an efficient, affordable resource to own and operate, and to address the ever increasing demand of providing grid resiliency,” said Osman Ahmed, a PNNL mechanical engineer and advisor leading the Digital Twins project.

Aging hydropower fleet

There are 50 hydropower plants in the United States that have been in service since 1908, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. These plants represent the oldest electric generating facilities in the country.

As the hydropower fleet ages, the industry faces the challenges of operational stress to older mechanical components and associated costs of degrading functions.

With an average life expectancy of 40 to 60 years, hydropower plants need preventative maintenance much like an aging car. By predicting and planning for components that need to be replaced or updated, the hydropower industry can maintain flexible and reliable energy services.

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