New high-tech software leads to smarter water use

Nov 28, 2016

TransAlta develops innovative Hydro software to optimize water use

Critical thinking generates innovation

How can we achieve even more intelligent water use? That question led TransAlta’s Hydro group to develop a first-of-its-kind water management system.

In 2011, Senior Water Management Engineer German Mojica was looking for a way TransAlta could maximize generation output using a different hydro scheduling practice. “I began evaluating data from historical generation periods at our largest hydro plants and what I found was exciting… we could increase generation efficiencies by running the same amount of water at different times,” said Mojica.

The findings prompted TransAlta’s Water Management and Hydro Scheduling group to begin researching if there were more opportune times to retain and release water, while still complying with all regulations and other considerations, including Power Purchase Arrangement obligations, environmental responsibilities, market rules, and public safety conditions.

Existing water management practices primarily used rules of thumb, manual procedures and spreadsheets, with no optimization function. “We wondered if there was a way to integrate all these complex variables into a software system that could help us make better informed water management decisions,” explained Mojica.

Developing a smart system

The idea began to gain ground in late 2012 when funds were allocated for the first stage of the project — engaging a vendor to assist in developing a software solution into which Mojica’s water modelling work and the company’s current hydro scheduling practices could be transferred. Leveraging a pre-existing software solution helped to minimize design and implementation costs.

An innovative approach for forecasting inflow

The second stage of the project, in 2013-2014, was all about finding a better forecast for inflow (the amount or rate of water flowing into the hydro system). Previously, inflows were manually estimated based on weather information and historical statistical analyses. It was not known how to accurately forecast inflows given the uniquely dynamic climatic and watershed conditions on the western slopes of the Rockies. An additional factor was that in 2014, the Expert Management Panel on River Flood Mitigation set by the City of Calgary also recommended the need to find ways to improve flood risk forecasting.

Water Management Engineer Lin Li researched and selected the best scientifically-supported and suitable inflow forecast model for TransAlta’s hydro system. Several third-party models were evaluated and one, originally developed by BC Hydro and University of British Columbia for the eastern slopes of the Rockies, was examined further in an experimental program in 2013 to see if and how the model could be adapted to predict inflows in the Bow and North Saskatchewan River Basins, where TransAlta’s hydro facilities are located.

“We calibrated the inflow forecast model by using over 10 years of historical, meteorological and actual flow data, then integrated the model with Alberta Environment’s near real-time data, Environment Canada’s weather forecast data and our own flow data,” said Li. Finally, in late 2014, the inflow forecast model they had developed was ready to be entered into the water management software system.

A first-of-its-kind system

The result was the development of a software optimization tool that now guides our water management practices by analyzing the complex interrelation between numerous factors. These factors include: overall system structure, environmental and governmental constraints (such as reservoir levels, maintenance and flood and drought mitigation), inflow forecasts, hydro scheduling requirements, plant capacity and more. Essentially, the software calculates and provides better estimates for how and when to move the water. TransAlta’s Water Management and Hydro Scheduling personnel then reference the software’s recommendations to make smarter and more informed water management decisions.

International recognition and interest

Developed over the span of five years and with numerous hours of research invested, this innovative ongoing project was awarded international recognition at the 2013 Hydro Vision conference and has been presented in at least four professional conferences in Canada and the U.S. Our Water Management and Hydro Scheduling group has also been asked for more information from peer hydro generation companies in the U.S. and New Zealand. TransAlta is pioneering in North America the use of this type of tool in a fully deregulated market.

In early 2016, the Water Management and Hydro Scheduling group was awarded (as co-recipients with two collaborating departments) a TransAlta President’s Award in the category of Innovation.

What’s next?

The application has been increasingly successful and has demonstrated benefits over the past two years. The team is currently incorporating new rules introduced by the agreement with the Government of Alberta for flood and drought mitigation, determining ways to improve its performance and accuracy, and identifying next steps to make the system usable for longer range forecasting.

Top left: Scott Taylor, Supervisor, Dam Safety & Environment. Top right: Lin Li, Engineer, Water Management. Seated: German Mojica, Sr. Water Management Engineer.

The Water Management and Hydro Scheduling group was a co-recipient (with two collaborating departments) of the 2015 President’s Award for Innovation, for their work in implementing a first-of-its-kind water management system.

The Water Management and Hydro Scheduling group was a co-recipient (with two collaborating departments) of the 2015 President’s Award for Innovation, for their work in implementing a first-of-its-kind water management system.