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I've Been to Varennes

I've visited just about every utility labratory in North America over the years, but I've never managed to make it to the Institute de Research Hydro-Qubec

I've visited just about every utility labratory in North America over the years, but I've never managed to make it to the Institute de Research Hydro-Québec (IREQ) in Varennes, Quebec. This year, the IEEE General Meeting was held in Montreal, so I had the perfect opportunity to visit. The laboratory director, Marc LeClerc, offered to drive me out to the Hydro-Québec (HQ) research facilities located an hour's drive outside Montreal. The drive gave Marc a chance to fill me in on some details about his utility.

Unlike most utilities in North America, HQ has stayed the course as a vertically integrated utility. History has shown that this decision has served the company well. Blessed with abundant hydro and resulting low energy prices, HQ finds itself in an enviable position of being able to export excess power to neighboring Canadian provinces as well as the United States.

HQ has a history of investing in research. Early work resulted in a robust grid enabling the utility to transport huge blocks of power from massive hydro stations in the North to load centers in the South.

Because of the extreme Northern climate, some of the most extensive cold weather research in the world have been performed at the Varennes facilities. Climate-controlled chambers enable HQ researchers to evaluate the effects of extreme weather under load conditions on components including transformers, switches and breakers.

Today, with a substantial grid in place, researchers are addressing a new set of challenges. For one, HQ faces a blending of technologies as communication systems become integral to a utility's ability to monitor, control and protect the grid. This need to meld communication and power technologies will only grow as HQ adds intelligence to the older substations now being refurbished.

Here are the three main focus areas being addressed at Varennes:

  1. Energy-efficiency research

    HQ is investing on the order of CDN$10 million per year in this effort to assist their customers in using electricity wisely.

  2. Coupling wind and yydro

    HQ generates 95% of its electricity with hydro. Thus, it makes sense to store excess wind energy by pumping water back into existing dams.

  3. Technology innovation

    LeClerc shared with me that, “Our presidents say, ‘I want technology.’” In fact, 15% of the research budget will be focused on future technologies with a significant focus on climate change.

HQ is presently developing better wind and weather predictions to address both climate change and more efficient management of hydro facilities.

Unlike many utilities, HQ's strategy encourages all employees to participate in taking science and technology to the marketplace.


LeClerc shared an example of how various functions within the company work together to embrace technology: “When we first looked at chromated copper arsenate-treated poles, the linemen were rightly concerned that the poles were so hard that they were difficult to climb and the linemen felt unsafe. HQ researchers worked with pole manufacturers and chemical companies to develop a solution that enabled the poles to remain soft to climb.”

If you've visited the lab before, you will notice a shift in focus at Varennes. In today's competitive era, HQ is convinced it must meet demand growth by exploiting technology. But too often, HQ doesn't see commercial technology evolving quickly enough to enable the company to meet its business targets. That is where the lab comes in. Researchers work with industry to speed the process so that innovations can be injected into the company to provide a technology advantage. HQ researchers maintain a dialogue with their customers, whether internal or external. States LeClerc, “HQ intends to properly maintain the facilities that help us add value for our customers. For example, we will be testing the capacitors on our system to determine how we can extract extra capacity and thus extra value out of our distribution automation system.”

In today's business culture, justifying research is not always easy. HQ has developed a common-sense business strategy that supports innovation. This utility looks at research expenditures as a portion of the total cost of an initiative, thus maintaining a healthy perspective on the value of the research to the project.

At the same time, the focus of research is changing. In the past, dedicated researchers proposed technically interesting topics. “Now,” states LeClerc (who spent time in many sections of the company including planning and operations), “we propose solutions specifically crafted to meet the customers' needs.”

In yet another effort to be more customer focused, HQ researchers provide proposals crafted in stages, so that customers, whether internal or external, may have access to the results they need on an ongoing basis. Customers also retain the option of pulling the plug on research if initial results don't show sufficient promise. By providing open communications with customers and building flexibility into research programs, the HQ staff maintains “close relationships” with clients, built on trust.

The Varennes facilities rival that of any research complex in the world. But equally amazing is the fact that IREQ routinely tackles smaller initiatives to assist its smaller utility customers and enable them to make smarter engineering and business decisions.

Thanks, Marc, for providing me the opportunity to see your facilities and talk to your scientists, engineers and managers. We are fortunate to have utilities with the will to invest in the technologies and systems that will define our industry in the decades to come.

Figures as of Dec. 31, 2005.
765 kV and 735 kV 38 11,422
±450 kV dc 2 1218
315 kV 62 5068
230 kV 50 2976
161 kV 40 1875
120 kV 213 6600
69 kV or less 100 3385
Total 505 32,544
Figures as of Dec. 31, 2005.
Newfoundland and Labrador 5200 0
New Brunswick 785 1200
Ontario 720 1295
New England 1870 2305
New York 1000 2125
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