Hydroelectric Design Center looks to the future

The Hydroelectric Design Center, located in Portland, Oregon, is the Corps’ experts in hydroelectric design.(Corps of Engineers photo)

The Hydroelectric Design Center, located in Portland, Oregon, is the Corps’ experts in hydroelectric design.(Corps of Engineers photo)


By Diana Fredlund, Public Affairs Office
(
Second in a series of articles about HDC and the vision of its senior leaders)

Author Lewis Carroll said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” That’s fine if the journey is more important than the results, but for the Hydroelectric Design Center, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Center of Expertise, that’s just not good enough.

For more than 60 years, HDC, as it became known in 1980, has been the Corps’ experts in hydroelectric design. While the engineering basics haven’t changed much since 1938 when the first hydroelectric projects were being designed on the Columbia River, how those basics are used has been constantly evolving. Better building materials, streamlined controls and digital technology are challenging engineers to design and build stronger, faster and smarter components. HDC’s Electrical Branch Chief Steven Ernst, and David Brown, Automated Controls and Cyber Security Branch chief, shared their ideas of what changes HDC may see in the future.

HDC supports 16 Corps of Engineer districts, as well as Bureau of Reclamation hydroelectric facilities, with a variety of engineering services.(Corps of Engineers photo)

HDC supports 16 Corps of Engineer districts, as well as Bureau of Reclamation hydroelectric facilities, with a variety of engineering services.(Corps of Engineers photo)

Future watch

HDC is in its third era, according to Ernst. The first era was designing and building large hydropower facilities; the second era began when construction waned and the Corps began adding capacity to existing facilities.

“Now those Corps facilities are nearly 70 years old and their infrastructure needs to be repaired and upgraded to keep them operating efficiently,” Ernst said. “They will need to be upgraded – not just once, but many times to keep them relevant for future hydropower production.”

HDC is at the forefront, developing new technologies to improve operations and new processes in order to maintain a high level of optimization, according to Brown. “It’s important to get the most out of a resource without constructing new facilities. Digitalization is one key to operating faster.”

Before digitalization, any change in powerhouse operations meant someone had to physically walk over to a unit and make a change. For example, changes in turbine flows were made manually at a turbine unit’s control system. “Digital technology means the change can occur in a split second; no more waiting for someone to walk through the powerhouse,” Brown said.

Along with speed, digitalization offers a more stable operating system. Before digitalization, each turbine unit needed lots of relays, with each relay doing only one job. They were reliable because they functioned simply, which minimized wear and tear.

“Digitalization incorporates a variety of jobs into one relay. They can perform more complex tasks and offer greater flexibility,” Brown said. “We will see even greater use of digital technology in the future. The one challenge is that as you ask more of a component, it wears out faster.”

Unlike digitalization, mechanical components, which are limited by the physical properties of their materials, will probably not change much. Brown and Ernst believe innovations are likely in other fields, however, including even more fish-friendly turbine designs and environmentally safe lubricants for dam operations.

“The days of constructing massive hydropower facilities are over,” Brown said. “Small hydro will move us forward.” Small hydro means constructing smaller operating facilities: they are not as expensive and their smaller scale means shorter construction; new materials mean greater efficiency.

“Chief Joseph Dam, one of the Columbia River’s biggest projects, has a capacity of about 2,800 megawatts; a small hydro facility would typically have capacity for between five and 100 kilowatts,” Brown said.

Because of their size and relative affordability, many small hydro facilities are expected to be private-public partnerships, similar to Dorena Dam, where Dorena Hydro, LLC., added a small hydro unit to the existing flood control dam.

“The Corps will not be constructing small hydro facilities any time soon,” Brown said. “Our current focus remains on big hydro projects, but as hydro experts, we need to know about their benefits and challenges so we can advise our customers appropriately.”

Securing the future

No matter what size a facility is, each one will need to protect itself from cyber attacks. Far from the days where someone needed to walk the powerhouse to make a change to a turbine output, nowadays many facilities can be operated remotely.

“Thanks to technology, it’s possible to operate equipment from anywhere – the joke is you could run things from your bed in your jammies,” Brown said.

That reality isn’t quite here yet, but it’s not far in the future.

“Last year a Wired Magazine reporter participated with some hackers who commandeered a Jeep while he was driving it. They got the lights, the radio, wiper blades and even the brakes to ignore the driver’s actions. It was quite a demonstration – one that really brought home how important it is to safeguard our properties from any cyber incursions,” Brown said. “We need to continually decide when the need for efficiency is overtaken by security concerns. It’s something we weigh every day.”

Brown and Ernst are excited about another aspect of digitalization: self-healing computer systems. These computer systems are capable of identifying a problem, isolating it from the rest of the system and determining, through trial and error, what action will solve the problem.

“Anything programmable can be self-healing – control room systems, turbine operations, pretty much any system we operate could use the technology,” Brown said. There are self-healing systems operating in District facilities today. “They go through the whole cycle of identification, isolation and problem solving, but they only provide recommendations. We don’t allow the systems to actually fix a problem themselves … yet.

“I believe within 20 years the Corps could use self-healing systems all across the District – and will allow them to fix problems and give us an account of actions they have taken,” Brown added.

Technology and new materials aside, how will the office change?

In the past, employees sat together in one room, often with only one phone. Now employees have individual spaces and everyone is connected to their own computer.

The Hydroelectric Design Center, the Corps’ experts in hydroelectric design, views wind power as complimentary to hydropower. To assist their customers, HDC engineers learn all they can about alternative forms of energy generation. (Corps of Engineers photo)

The Hydroelectric Design Center, the Corps’ experts in hydroelectric design, views wind power as complimentary to hydropower. To assist their customers, HDC engineers learn all they can about alternative forms of energy generation. (Corps of Engineers photo)

The future will likely expand virtual teams, with members geographically separated. “We already have virtual teams,” Ernst said. “I see many more teams with engineers who are working in Portland, project managers located in Kansas City and researchers at ERDC in Mississippi working together in real time.” Both Ernst and Brown believe HDC will gain even greater diversity in fields of study, with mathematicians, statisticians, scientists and biologists becoming more important to its day-to-day operations.

One thing won’t change for HDC: its dedication to customer care. “HDC operates more like a small business than a government agency,” Brown said. “It is agile, with the ability to respond to conditions, or change direction if a situation requires it. That creates a more entrepreneurial environment, which encourages innovation, creativity and specialized knowledge.

“We are hydropower experts, but we work for our customers and what they need. Asset management, optimization and new technologies help us offer the service they need to succeed,” Brown said. “I know that won’t change.”

HDC’s customers have driven the organization to change its practices over the years in order to better support them, and they will continue to do so. Ernst and Brown – and all of HDC’s leaders – believe they know which road to take into the future – it’s the one their customers map for them.