HydroWIRES Initiative

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Four areas of hydroWIRES research areas lines out in text.

The U.S. electricity system is rapidly evolving, bringing both opportunities and challenges for hydropower and pumped storage hydropower (PSH).

The changing electric grid has created an increasing need for flexible generation and storage resources that can balance the system and provide a range of other grid services. Hydropower is a renewable resource capable of offering a host of flexibility services such as ramping, frequency response, and black start that can support grid reliability. PSH is also highly complementary to other forms of renewable energy and offers storage capabilities that can reduce curtailment and support the integration of a larger share of variable energy resources.

While hydropower and PSH can provide a host of generation and storage resources and capabilities needed for flexible operation of the changing electric grid, the specific design and operational attributes that may prove most useful within the future power system are not well understood.

This uncertainty can result in plant and fleet-wide inefficiencies in how existing grid services and ancillary services are evaluated, procured, and compensated. In response to this challenge, the Water Power Technologies Office (WPTO) has launched a new grid research initiative—Hydropower and Water Innovation for a Resilient Electricity System (HydroWIRES)—to understand, enable, and improve hydropower and PSH’s contributions to reliability, resilience, and integration in a rapidly evolving electricity system.



HydroWIRES Lab Call Projects

In fiscal year 2019, WPTO released a solicitation for proposals from its National Laboratories—a Lab Call—to enable research and development under a number of different HydroWIRES-focused topical areas. A total of $5.9M was competitively awarded among the HydroWIRES team of five National Laboratories—Argonne National Laboratory (ANL), Idaho National Laboratory (INL), National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL)—to execute new projects that further the HydroWIRES mission of understanding, enabling, and improving hydropower’s contributions to grid reliability, resilience, and integration. Find out additional information about each topical area, awarded projects, and lead project investigators (PIs) below:

Topic Area A: Approaches for Evaluating Environmental/Multi-Use and Flexibility Tradeoffs, and Achieving Win-Wins

(A) Improving Hydropower Benefits by Linking Environmental Decisions and Power System Trade-offs Through Flow Release Decisions ($2.0M): Hydropower has a new and potentially important role in enhancing resilience of the electric system due to its ability to generate power without inputs from the grid. It is imminently important to understand if hydropower can have the necessary operational flexibility to provide these services given environmental flow requirements placed on the fleet. Environmental flow requirements included in Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) hydropower licenses are an important component to preserving, and in some cases, restoring, ecological function and services provided by riverine ecosystems. While environmental flow requirements in a FERC license may improve outcomes such as water quality, fish habitat, or recreation, they may limit the operational flexibility of hydropower plants, narrowing their ability to respond to the grid. Defining linkages between flow requirements and specific environmental outcomes is essential to not only producing favorable environmental outcomes but also to enabling greater operational flexibility within a given hydropower facility. This project will provide pathways for this co-optimization in hydropower systems by quantitatively linking power system and environmental outcomes through the common hub of flow decisions. It is anticipated that the co-optimization framework created in this project will provide a guide for designing environmental flow requirements that create value propositions for a diversity of stakeholders in FERC licensing proceedings. 

Lead Project Investigator (PI): Brenda Pracheil (ORNL)

Laboratory(s): ORNL, PNNL, ANL, INL, NREL

Topic Area B: Improve Production Cost Model Capabilities for Representing Hydropower and PSH Plants

(B1) Enhancing the representation of conventional hydropower flexibility in production cost models ($700k): Hydropower is in high demand from a power grid coordination perspective because of its operational and economic characteristics. But production cost models (PCMs)—a tool traditionally used to plan and optimize power generation sources to meet demand within security constraints at the lowest cost—currently oversimplify hydropower operations. As part of the HydroWIRES initiative, researchers from PNNL, ANL, and ORNL are teaming with the Center for Advanced Decision Support for Water and Environmental Systems to improve the representation of hydropower operations in PCMs across regional power grids. The PNNL-led team is leveraging large scale integrated water modeling tools and unit commitment models to build a module that characterizes potential hydropower operations based on daily hydrologic conditions, regulatory water management compliance rules, and economic signals. This module, referred to as dynamic classification by PCM modelers, will support more robust PCM-based studies. The dynamic classification will be developed over the western United States as proof of concept. Results from this effort will guide future model development and research to improve generator fleet dispatch, scheduling, and planning, toward the goal of better co-optimizing water and energy systems.

PI: Nathalie Voisin (PNNL)

Laboratory(s): PNNL, ANL, INL, ORNL

(B2) Improving the Representation of Hydrologic Processes and Reservoir Operations in Production Cost Models ($800k): Although there have been many advances in PCM techniques over the past decade, the representation of hydropower operations has remained relatively rudimentary.  Hydropower operational constraints (e.g. equipment, water use priorities and rules, environmental constraints) are not easily characterized in unit commitment and economic dispatch models. Uncertainties involved with hydropower planning also do not align well with grid operation methodologies. These misalignments make it difficult for grid operations models to comprehensively value and make best use of the flexibility available with hydropower generation. To address these challenges, NREL will lead integration of intraday and day ahead grid operations models with a river basin model, enabling a global optimization across both grid and reservoir operations. The lab will also use stochastic hydropower forecasts combined with progressive hedging to perform multi-stage, multi-time period optimization. This allows the combined grid and water model to value multiple timescales and uncertainties in a single optimization, enabling more accurate value of real-time flexibility to help balance supply and demand under different scenarios while enforcing precise, long-term water level constraints. In essence, the project will help to improve both grid and water system resilience while making better use of the water throughout the season.

PI: Greg Stark (NREL)

Laboratory(s): NREL

Topic Area C: Develop New Frameworks, Models, and Tools to Quantify Hydropower’s Contribution to System Reliability/Resilience

(C) Characterization of Hydropower Generation Attributes Relevant to Grid Reliability and Resilience ($1.0M): The US power system is continuing to evolve both in terms of system composition, as well as the definition of and requirements for attributes related to reliability and resilience of operations. While conventional contributors to system reliability are being replaced by as-available and variable renewable energy resources, extreme events (e.g. man-made (cyber) and natural) continue to afflict the power system on a more routine basis, causing damage and potential disruptions to the grid. Hence, the role of hydropower in meeting reliability and resilience needs will become even more important. This project will develop frameworks, evaluation methodologies, and tools to identify hydropower’s contribution to grid reliability and resilience. These methods will be demonstrated through various use cases representing a variety of future grid conditions and extreme event scenarios. The project will also provide insights into the specific operational and design attributes of hydropower resources that may need to be adapted to ensure that resources are best equipped to meet the power system’s reliability and resilience needs.

PI: Abhishek Somani (PNNL)

Laboratory(s): PNNL, INL, NREL, ORNL, ANL

Topic Area D: Open Topic

(D1) Improving Hydropower and PSH Representations in Capacity Expansion Models ($450k): Long-term planning tools have difficulty representing detailed hydropower operating characteristics, which depend not only on technological specifications but also on water management practices and regulations. As a result, the value of hydropower is incompletely characterized, and the potential role of hydropower in the performance and resiliency of the future electric grid is not fully understood. This work will fill that gap by developing new ways to represent hydropower resource, technology, and operational characteristics in electric sector capacity expansion models and implementing them in the open-source version of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Regional Energy Deployment System (ReEDS) model. ReEDS is a well-established national scale planning tool used since 2003 by the U.S. Department of Energy and others to explore the evolution of the U.S. electric sector. Improvements will include a comprehensive national resource assessment for pumped storage hydropower and methods for modeling multiple hydropower technology categories characterized by technical, regulatory, and economic characteristics. The project will provide guiding principles and strategies for improving hydropower modeling in capacity expansion models and deliver a first-of-its kind versatile PSH dataset. All data, code, and methods will be publicly available, allowing the industry to better identify the value of hydropower in the future electricity system and make more informed planning decisions.

PI: Stuart Cohen (NREL)

Laboratory(s): NREL

(D2) Addressing Barriers to Energy Storage in Transmission Planning and Operations ($600k): A complex set of technical and regulatory issues creates significant barriers that prevent pumped storage hydropower (PSH) and other forms of energy storage from accurate representation in transmission planning and operational processes. These barriers are numerous and complex, and a full evaluation of them has not yet been done. As a result, current transmission planning, deployments and operations may be inefficient and, ultimately, may result in higher costs for customers. This project will identify those barriers, create a proposed participation model for PSH to provide transmission and market functions, and conduct a techno-economic analysis of PSH that fully quantifies its technical capability and economic value as a transmission asset.

PI: Jeremy Twitchell (PNNL)

Laboratory(s): PNNL, ANL

(D3) Value of flow forecasts to power system analytics ($300k): Hydropower operators use weekly water inflow forecasts to optimize reservoir releases and unit commitment and to meet power grid needs. The accuracy of inflow forecasts, combined with related scheduling adjustments, contracts, and market opportunities, are reflected in a utilities’ revenue. One of the goals of the HydroWIRES initiative is to quantify the flexibility of hydropower operations and understand its adaptability to changes in water supply, regulation, markets, and power grid needs. In partnership with North Carolina State University and the National Corporation of Atmospheric Research, researchers from PNNL and INL will use inflow forecasts, reservoir and power system models, and case studies to demonstrate the contribution of flow forecast to provide hydropower services to the grid. Flow forecast accuracy metrics, combined with regional power system analytics (including regional economics and generation portfolios) will help detangle the value of incremental improvement in flow forecasts. This research supports DOE in developing strategic partnerships with other institutions to invest in information products and decision-support practices for meeting power grid needs.

PI: Nathalie Voisin (PNNL)

Laboratory(s): PNNL, INL


  • Flexible hydropower providing value to renewable energy integration – published by the International Energy Agency with contributions from the HydroWIRES team, this white paper provides a global perspective on the need for flexibility to enable renewable integration and hydropower’s capabilities to provide this flexibility across a range of time scales. The white paper also highlights future research needs, such as ways to improve hydropower’s capabilities for flexible operation.

  • Hydropower Plants as Black Start Resources - identifies the advantages of using hydroelectric power for black start and compares hydropower with other types of power plants for providing this valuable service to ensure the resiliency of the power grid. The report provides an overview of the critical role of black start capability to ensure timely restoration of grid operation after a major power grid outage.

  • Energy Storage Technology and Cost Characterization Report - defines and evaluates cost and performance parameters of six battery energy storage technologies (BESS) and four non-BESS storage technologies. Data for combustion turbines are also presented. Cost information was procured for the most recent year for which data were available based on an extensive literature review, conversations with vendors and stakeholders, and summaries of actual costs provided from specific projects at sites across the United States. Detailed cost and performance estimates were presented for 2018 and projected out to 2025.

Open Funding Opportunities

There are currently no open funding opportunities. 

Research Areas
HydroWIRES research road map overview in text.

Research Area 1: Value Under Future Power System Conditions

What will the grid need? 

This research area focuses on understanding the variety of grid services that may be most vital for the future grid. These services will depend on the future generation mix, including the share of variable renewables and other system conditions. Central to Research Area 1, as well as for the other research areas, is the development of a complete categorization of benefits and services that hydropower can contribute to the electric system. As the grid evolves, this area of research will analyze how economic drivers and changes in competitive markets affect the benefits and services that are of greatest value to the electric system. New valuation practices within the context of these changes are needed to accurately consider the range of contributions from hydropower and PSH assets.

Example Projects

Research Area 2: Capabilities and Constraints

What can hydropower do?

This research area constitutes a comprehensive and quantitative assessment of plant- and fleet-level hydropower capabilities, as well as the barriers, or constraints, to full utilization of those capabilities. These barriers include the precision of hydrologic forecasting over planning horizons and how capabilities and constraints are represented and characterized within electric system operations and planning practices. Research Area 2 also focuses on advancing tools for understanding hydropower capabilities (e.g., evaluating trade-offs, anticipating water availability, utilizing water for the grid) to achieve greater degrees of flexibility.

Example Projects

Research Area 3: Operations and Planning

How can hydropower best align what it can do with what the grid will need?

This research area considers the potential needs of the grid in Research Area 1 and hydropower’s unique capabilities and constraints in Research Area 2, to develop innovative ways to optimize planning and operations of hydropower from plant to fleet level. The essence of Research Area 3 is investigating the best role for hydropower to play to contribute to a future electricity system that will include many different generation sources, each with their own unique capabilities. Work under Research Area 3 will quantify hydropower plant- and fleet-level contributions to support power system needs while enabling enhancement of these contributions through new operational strategies and planning approaches.

Example Projects

Research Area 4: Technology Innovation

What new technology could expand what hydropower can do to meet grid needs?

This research area focuses on the development of innovative technologies and designs needed to maintain or expand hydropower’s contributions to the grid, such as by enabling more flexible operation. This research space will be supported by a gaps assessment, which leverages the efforts of the previous three research areas to synthesize technology gaps that limit unit and plant flexibility and identify high-value opportunities for R&D. Performance targets are informed by the previous three research areas to understand future system conditions, current capabilities, and hydropower’s role alongside other generation resources.

Example Projects

What's Next
  • Hydropower Value Study describing the current operational landscape, future grid scenarios, and hydropower capabilities and gap analysis.
  • The Furthering Advancements to Shorten Time (FAST) Commissioning for PSH Prize aims to catalyze new solutions, designs, and strategies to accelerate PSH development by reducing the time, cost, and risk to commission PSH. Prize competitors are currently in the incubation state of the competition (receiving up to 50 hours of technical assistance). The grand prize winner will be announced in October 2019.
  • Ongoing development of a HydroWIRES Research Roadmap, which provides context, strategic direction, and organization for the initiative at large. Soon to be released for public feedback in 2019.
HydroWIRES Team
Organization chart for HydroWIRES.

The HydroWIRES initiative leverages close engagement with five DOE National Laboratories—Argonne National Laboratory, Idaho National Laboratory, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory—that work as a team to provide strategic insight and develop connections across the DOE portfolio that add significant value to the HydroWIRES initiative. Laboratory researchers serve as leaders of each research area, providing both technical leadership and strategic insight to inform the R&D portfolio and broader DOE efforts.

Intersection with DOE Initiatives

Grid Modernization Initiative (GMI)

HydroWIRES operates in conjunction with GMI, which focuses on the development of new architectural concepts, tools, and technologies that measure, analyze, predict, protect, and control the grid of the future, and on enabling the institutional conditions that allow for quicker development and widespread adoption of these tools and technologies.


Please email HydroWIRES@ee.doe.gov.