From the Board Room: Maryse François-Xausa, Alstom

By Elizabeth Ingram

Alstom provides a variety of equipment for the hydroelectric power industry, from water to wire. In fact, the company says its turbines and generators installed worldwide represent more than 25% of the total hydropower capacity today. The company has been operating for more than 100 years and is headquartered in France.

Maryse François-Xausa

HRW-Hydro Review Worldwide recently sat down with Maryse François-Xausa, senior vice president, global R&D with Alstom Renewable Power and vice president of global R&D and product management with Alstom Hydro. In 2014, François-Xausa received a Women with Hydro Vision award from PennWell in the category of research and development, in recognition of her tremendous influence and impact on the hydroelectric industry. The following is a transcript of that discussion.

Q: What does the term “modern hydropower” mean to you?

François-Xausa: Hydro is modern and this is something we need to explain, to everybody. It’s not just an energy of the past, it will be an energy of the future. Worldwide there are more and more intermittent renewables (such as wind and solar) being developed. There is a need to introduce this intermittent energy into the grid, and hydropower can help in this respect. Hydro is flexible and is the perfect complement to a grid being fed with large quantities of intermittent energy, which is the case in North America and Europe.

In addition, energy storage, which hydropower provides, is very important. And of course, in new markets, local energy production is needed. The availability of energy contributes to the growth of countries’ economies, as well as to their energy independence. Finally, hydroelectric power can help decrease a country’s environmental footprint by decreasing its dependence on fossil fuels

Hydro is a technology that is very modern.

Q: What is the main challenge for hydro development around the world?

François-Xausa: One of the challenges is linked to the opinion of the people. There are not enough electricity consumers and officials who recognize that hydro is a renewable source of energy, and there is a lot to do with respect to this in the hydropower industry. It is important to communicate to consumers and policy makers alike that hydro is the leading renewable energy source and that there is great hydro potential still to be developed.

The second point is that we must be able to explain to all people that hydro is a possibility to help integrate other renewable energy sources because hydro is really flexible. It has quick start capabilities and can operate at partial load, which helps accommodate the variations associated with wind and solar energy.

The 1,450 MW Linthal plant in Switzerland is the site of the first Alstom variable speed machine being installed.

Q: What are the innovative approaches you would put forward and use as an example of hydropower as a modern, evolving technology?

François-Xausa: There is a lot to say about new technology but there is one point in particular I want to make. Variable speed pumped storage is a technology that will help us with more flexibility in both pumping mode and turbine mode. With variable speed units, the power absorbed in pumping mode can be varied by about 30% over a certain range, depending on the head. This enables the power station operator to regulate grid frequency in pump mode and deliver services such as frequency regulation to the grid operator while filling the upper reservoir. Conventional pumped-storage plants can only deliver this service while in generation mode. Use of variable speed technology allows us to achieve a lot of segregation in terms of load generation. The additional flexibility provided by the speed variation also enables sites with a wide head variation to be equipped.

Alstom’s first variable speed machine installed is at the 1,450-MW Linthal plant in Switzerland, which is a high-head site. This plant is being extended through the installation of four 450-MW units, and it will be commissioned soon. We also are designing and manufacturing variable speed equipment for three other facilities, Nant de Drance in Switzerland, Tehri in India and Le Cheylas in France.

Q: What is the most striking change you have witnessed for hydropower recently?

François-Xausa: Improvements in flexibility. Traditionally, hydro was used mainly as a baseload power source. Operators would set their machines at the best operating point at the beginning of the year and 20 years after you would see them operating the same way. Today, this is not the view that we have. We use hydropower with a lot of flexibility in order to move the load. It can have a lot of variability. We have to design completely new machines that can operate safely in a wide range of operation, and that means a lot of development. This is a big change.

And there is a smaller change, which is materials. New materials are really key to building machines today. We see a lot of evolution with regard to use of new material in hydro. In the USA, for example, stay vane extensions are being accomplished using composite materials. Extending the stay vanes allows the shape of the stay vane to be modified to reduce losses caused by turbulence, which in turn increases plant efficiency. Alstom uses a technique to make stay vane extensions with a composite material layup shell that is bonded to the stay vane and filled with an epoxy casting. This technique greatly reduces the lead time for creating stay vane extensions.

An example of such a project for us is the 2,620-MW Chief Joseph facility on the Columbia River in Washington State in the USA. It worked perfectly. In addition, with the new materials, we can complete the work [of installing the extensions] in three days instead of three weeks.

An 800 MW turbine runner, supplied by Alstom and destined for the Xiangjiaba facility in China, is being delivered.

Q: Could you identify key hydro markets and explain why they are attractive?

François-Xausa: For new hydro, China remains the leading market. I recently returned from Tianjin, where we celebrated 20 years of Alstom Hydro in China. During this trip, I heard first hand from customers and consulting engineers about their ambitions and the challenges they face. China needs more electricity and it needs a greater proportion of it from renewable sources. China continues to build very high installed capacity hydropower plants, such as Xiangjiaba, equipped with the world’s most powerful hydro turbine and generator units at 800 MW/889 MVa. These units were supplied by Alstom. China is also a major market for pumped storage, and Alstom recently won the contract for the Qiongzhong pumped storage project.

Many countries in southern Asia have significant development potential as well. We see quite a lot of hydro projects on the horizon there. Turkey is a strong market and Africa has enormous potential. Latin America is perennially a good market for building new projects.

Finally, Europe and North America have quite a lot of existing plants, and there is a need to upgrade these plants to the new needs of the market, to improve efficiency and mainly flexibility of these plants.

Q: What is the main challenge for hydropower development around the world?

François-Xausa: Investment will be very important for hydroelectricity globally. We need more support for research in particular. Hydro is at a critical point. There has been a lot of evolution with regard to flexibility, and we need to do significant research on this aspect.

One example of research being performed is the eStorage consortium supported by the European Commission. This is a research project that includes Alstom and the utility Electricite de France (EDF), as well as Elia, DNV GL and Imperial College London. The focus is the industry’s first upgrade of fixed speed pumped storage to variable speed.

Q: What single change would you like to see that could enhance the role of modern hydropower?

François-Xausa: I would like to see changes to government policy, with more government support for hydro. And more government support for research. Governments need to accept and promote this energy source, which is carbon-free and renewable.

Q: Any final thoughts/comments on the future of hydropower?

François-Xausa: I want to leave you with three points.

  1. Hydro has huge potential for growth. Only a third of the potential sites worldwide have been equipped, and we need to ensure everybody knows this point.
  2. Pumped storage is the only way to answer to needs of flexibility with regard to new intermittent renewables.
  3. More and more, hydro project owners are turning to companies, such as Alstom, to provide service, operation and management for their hydropower plants.

Elizabeth Ingram is managing editor of HRW-Hydro Review Worldwide.

GE acquires Alstom

GE’s recent acquisition of Alstom’s power and grid businesses, including Alstom’s hydro business, is an important step in GE’s transformation to a digital industry company. Alstom and GE’s power and grid technology and geography combined will enable many new opportunities to create value for customers. GE plans to grow its hydro business, which already accounts for more than 25% of the total hydropower capacity worldwide.

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