Researching a path to more efficient and effective hydropower

An insight into the advanced engineering that lies behind modern hydropower was afforded by a recent visit to the Alstom R&D centre in Grenoble in the Rhône-Alpes region, not far from the Swiss border with France.

This site - founded in 1917 and therefore a hub of engineering excellence for close to 100 years - has been the focus of considerable investment by Alstom over the last few years as the company moves to increase the processing power of its IT system, the backbone of the complex computational fluid dynamics (CFD) that lie at the heart of modern hydro turbine design as well as the number of test rigs available to conduct research into hydrodynamic design.

Following its acquisition of the site in the late 1960s, it was inaugurated as the company’s global technology and hydropower headquarters just over a year ago, the Grenoble site employs some 650 Alstom employees as well as housing a number of related supply companies bring the total headcount to around 900, of which around a quarter work in R&D. As the name implies, the centre carries out all of Alstom’s hydropower research and development following the 2008 launch of an investment programme which boosted the capacity of its hydraulic test laboratory to include six advanced test-rigs up from the original four. Able to simulate the same conditions as a hydro power plant the company has spent some EUR25 million on updating the Grenoble site, though it won’t reveal the annual R&D budget.

Grenoble is also used for the manufacturing of major components such as large valves for example and runners for variable speed turbines. Currently components for the first variable speed pump turbine - to be installed at the 1 GW Linthal 2015 pumped storage plant located in Switzerland and due to enter service next year – are being manufactured there.

Emphasising the technical expertise Alstom is gathering at the Grenoble site, the company has announced the creation of an industrial chair dedicated to hydraulic machines at the local Polytechnic Institute of Grenoble (Grenoble INP) which comprises six engineering schools). One goal is to equip the Institute with an additional turbine test-rig and October saw the chair, dubbed “Hydro’Like” inaugurated.

Commenting on the bid to unite the research efforts of a number of academic laboratories in Grenoble and Alstom's technology centre in order to develop the hydraulic machines of the future, Maryse François-Xausa, Alstom's Vice-President for Research and Development, said: “It is essential that research and development resources are expanded in order to deal with these new demands and remain competitive.”

Certainly, there has been unprecedented growth in hydro power over the past decade as a large part of undeveloped global hydroelectric capacity is being developed, but also because of its role in providing a response to variable output renewable energies like wind and solar power. And it is the Research & Development of the kind that takes place in Grenoble and elsewhere that is the foundation on which the future development of advanced hydropower is built.

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