The hydroelectric sector currently provides more than two-thirds of the total generation from the complex of Renewable Sources, and -according to the National Action Plan recently developed by the Government- in 2020 it is expected to contribute more than 40%.
This sector boasts a long heritage and proven technology. However, its maintenance as a primary source of renewable energy is related to the improvement of the environmental performance of its plants and -in general- to the overall sustainability of their infrastructure.
The main constraints are, on the one hand, the change in water availability in relation to the expected climate change and the increase in water demand, and, on the other, the socio-cultural and legislative change, which increasingly places environmental quality standards, also in line with the European harmonization of the related legislation.
European legislation (the Water Framework Directive WFD) provides for the adoption of Integrated Water Resource Management IWRM. The development and experimental application of methodologies for the effective implementation of integrated, multidisciplinary and shared water resource management are one of the current research topics at RSE.
Important opportunities for development are considered for the mini-hydroelectric, for which RSE is currently developing rigorous and comprehensive evaluation of the actual potential in the area. Since this source involves issues concerning environmental impact and use of resources and the territory, RSE is also currently developing agile but strict and complete tools to measure impacts and methodologies for comparative evaluation of concession requests, which are often "competing".
With regard to the safety of hydroelectric facilities, considering that most of the existing dams have already reached or are near the end of their useful life, resulting in aging and structural degradation, it is becoming increasingly urgent to carefully and continuously assess actual security conditions, in view of the catastrophic consequences that may occur as a result of a possible structural collapse. RSE develops simulation and sophisticated calculation tools, suitable for solving many engineering problems as well as new methods for security analysis, based on "risk analysis".
Another important aspect to be considered both in terms of security, but especially for the optimal management of the resource and for sustainable development of hydropower, is linked to the progressive tank siltation. RSE is working to develop new strategies based on innovative techniques for the optimal recovery of the storage capacity of our tanks, considering all the issues (hydraulic, structural, geotechnical and environmental) that need to be addressed before any type of intervention.
Remaining on the issue of security, the limitations on the operation of hydroelectric reservoirs linked to the need for possible flood lamination should not be forgotten: in fact, artificial reservoirs created by dams, in addition to their function as a reservoir for hydroelectric production, if they have sufficient volume, they can be a means to mitigate the flooding effects on valleys, acting as a "lung", at the expense, however, of the full capacity of the reservoir and -therefore- production.RSE has developed a tool to predict floods which makes it possible to deal with them better and thus ensure protection, while minimizing the losses of energy production. Flood forecasting also for reservoirs that cannot perform lamination because of their small size is still useful for operators for operational safety.
RSE is currently studying a version of this system that can help forecast production for hydroelectric plants with flowing water (guaranteeing a significant proportion, over 40% of total output).
A further research topic that RSE has underway is the development of storage plants, through pumping, in order to encourage the increasing integration in our electricity system of increasing amounts of generation from intermittent sources, typically such as wind and solar.