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Powering a Sustainable Future

How GE Hydro Solutions and Rockwell Automation are Unlocking the Potential of Renewable Energy in Africa. The continent is currently experiencing several parallel transformative forces that can lead to rising prosperity and global influence, including demographic and social change, growing urbanisation and rapid economic growth.

Powering a Sustainable Future

The 21st century promises to be a period of enormous geopolitical and economic change. Africa stands at the forefront of that shift. 

The strength of the energy sector is central to the aspiration of capitalising on the continent’s bountiful natural resources. Powering Africa’s future will require new infrastructure to serve its citizens and help protect its environment and ecology. One project driving this ambition is the Nachtigal hydro power plant in Cameroon. Commissioned by the Nachtigal Hydro Power Company (NHPC), a company joint owned by several entities including global energy company EDF and the Republic of Cameroon, the project is currently under development and due to go into full production in 2024. Once operational, the plant is anticipated to provide 30% of Cameroon’s energy demand, amounting to an annual output of three terawatt-hours.

To guide the success of this important development, NHPC contracted global hydro leaders GE Hydro Solutions to provide seven 60 MW hydro power units for its plant on the Sanaga river. With the support of global control solutions company Rockwell Automation, GE Hydro Solutions is working to provide renewable energy generation that reinforces the country’s future growth and sustainability.

Supporting Renewables Growth

Africa has significant potential for future hydro development. Currently, hydro power accounts for 17% of the electricity generation in Africa. This share may potentially increase to more than 23% by 2040, as part of the ongoing effort towards clean energy transition and universal energy access in Africa1. Hydro power is appealing for several reasons, including the flexibility of power generation in adapting to changing energy demands, the low cost per kilowatt hour of power and the ability to make significant reductions in carbon emissions from the use of hydroelectric dams over more conventional energy sources such as coal.

Making this vision a reality requires significant investment in infrastructure and a commitment to long-term development. The duration of a large-scale hydro power project is dictated by the civil work operations and the erection of the turbine that generates the hydro power, which can add many years – and significant cost – to the project. It also needs to have the right suppliers on board to make sure the project is executed on time and with respect for safety and compliance.

The major company behind NHPC, EDF, is renowned in the hydro sector for its high standards and expectations of the companies it works with. EDF selected GE Hydro Solutions for the provision of the hydro turbines and generators. As one of the world’s largest energy production businesses, GE offers a strong record of quality and reliability. It was essential that GE brought to the project a network of service and solutions providers that shared that commitment to quality.

A primary component supporting GE’s solution is the control system. As the interface used to control the generators and turbines, the control system has to adapt to the life of the project and continue to provide value as the project evolves. The design of a hydro power plant is not set in stone at the project’s outset – it evolves through a process of discovery and in response to exogenous forces such as structural changes in the energy network.

GE needed a supplier that could deliver high-quality control components to build its GE SmartControl™ hydro power plant control solution, but it also needed a service provider. Hydro is a highly capital-intensive sector and service now plays an ever more important role in distinguishing prospective suppliers. Especially in early stages of the project, it’s important to be able to dispatch people rapidly to the site to ensure proper operation. There are also areas such as cybersecurity that will evolve over the project’s lifetime, so the supplier needs to be able to evolve solutions in response to change.

To this end, GE Hydro Solutions selected Rockwell Automation as its solutions supplier for the Nachtigal project.

A Thriving Relationship

GE Hydro Solutions and Rockwell Automation initially began working together in 2018, based on a complementary service offering and a strong cultural alignment. As the value of the relationship became more apparent, GE made Rockwell Automation its global partner for the SmartControl™ solutions, which precipitated the collaboration on the Nachtigal project 2019.

According to Olivier Teller, Global Product Director Service & Controls, GE Hydro Solutions, the selection of the control system was no minor consideration. “The control system is the customer’s interface to their plant. It’s something that’s used every day that the plant is operational and has significant utility. Quality is important,” he said.

GE Hydro Solutions wanted a supplier that is recognised globally. The company was well aware of EDF’s standards and knew that having the right supplier would help to put the customer at ease. “We wanted a vendor that not only we could trust, but that our customers would feel comfortable in working with,” Olivier added.

While the quality of Rockwell Automation’s solutions is well known, it was the strength of the service support from its employees that gave the company an edge in this project. “Our customers want to feel safe in the knowledge that should any failures emerge, they will be fixed quickly. Rockwell Automation’s mix of global footprint and in-depth local knowledge means it’s well placed to act in any event and reduce the risk of system failure, which would otherwise have serious consequences.”

The relationship also extends beyond the solutions and services to help meet GE’s own corporate values and priorities. “It’s important for us to have a relationship that aligns with our corporate ethics, including in areas of paramount importance such as sustainability and compliance,” Olivier added.

The solution
To meet the specific needs of the Nachtigal project, Rockwell Automation is providing a Distributed Control System that enables GE to operate a wide range of hydro power applications. The solution has been proven across several projects and use cases and promises to deliver the reliability, flexibility and scalability that’s needed at Nachtigal.

GE Hydro Solutions needed a broad solution as each hydro plant is unique, including differences in factors such as the generator and the setup around turbine, so it needed a control system that can cover big variation. Rockwell Automation has a choice of components of solutions and is able to systematically find a solution within their portfolio.

The system controls the whole plant, capitalising on Rockwell Automation’s Logix platform to provide application support in a simple and easy-to-use environment. Furthermore, the tight integration between the programming software, controller and I/O modules can help reduce development time, reduce machine wear and lower maintenance requirements, potentially offering significant savings over the course of the plant’s lifetime.

Additionally, with field support engineers in more than 80 countries and round-the-clock call-center availability, the customer could feel assured that they will be supported when needed. This service component helps make Rockwell Automation stand out in the control and automation market.

What the future holds

With the Nachtigal project due to move into energy production in 2024, GE Hydro Solutions is looking ahead to how the solution will support the plant once live. Crucially, the company has a number of key indicators in place that will help to assess the success of the project and identify areas for ongoing improvement.

According to Olivier, there are several things GE Hydro Solutions will be looking for to constitute the success of the relationship in fulfilling the customer’s needs. “Firstly, there the reliability of the solution and availability of spare parts in case of components going down. Secondly, there’s the ability to support the enhancement solution over a long period, including responding quickly to any customer requests. The control system could have a 10-15 year lifespan, so Rockwell Automation’s support will be critical to successful operation.

“Furthermore, we’re looking at how we can jointly adapt the services to support in meeting sustainability and cybersecurity needs in line with evolving industry standards. Above all, it’s important for us to be able to instil confidence in our customer that the control system is, and will continue to be, an essential and highly performing part of its infrastructure.

“I believe we’re the right companies to be supporting NHPC on this strategically important venture and in meeting these goals we will bring further evidence of the value of the teamwork ecosystem we’ve brought to the project,” Olivier concluded.

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