Hydropower Emulation Platform

NREL researchers are developing a controlled lab environment for hydropower-specific multitechnology evaluation.

Two people at a table looking at computers.
NREL researchers Mayank Panwar and Bang Nguyen look at the Real-Time Hydropower Emulation Platform, which uses the ARIES platform. At the core of the platform is the ARIES digital, real-time simulation setup, which is one of the largest in the U.S. Department of Energy lab complex. It is used for control prototyping, evaluating, and validating existing and novel hydropower technologies in a real-time environment using a hardware-in-the-loop approach. Photo by Joe DelNero, NREL

Field validation for new and emerging hydropower technologies is risky, expensive, and time-consuming. However, when industry and NREL researchers use a unique, at-scale laboratory environment, users can develop and validate next-generation controls for hydropower applications under various grid conditions before they are ever connected to the grid. This can accelerate deployment and technology adoption in a risk-reduced manner. Additionally, users can evaluate upcoming technologies that have potential to address hydropower's integration and operational challenges in a vendor-neutral way while using the at-scale environment of NREL's Advanced Research on Integrated Energy Systems (ARIES).

Advanced Research on Integrated Energy Systems Real-Time Hydropower Emulation Platform
A river system with dams and spillways with an arrow leading from the dams into the next panel.
Field Data From Actual Hydropower Plants
A person looking at a tablet next to rectangular stacks overlain with circular arrows. The arrow leading from the previous panel points toward the stacks.
Hydropower Representation Using Machine Learning Algorithms
Computer servers. In pop-out circles are illustrations of a hydropower dam, a solar panel, a wind turbine, and a battery. An arrow leads from these four circles off toward the next panel.
Digital Real-Time Simulation Platform and Assets
An arrow leads in from the previous panel and diverts into an illustration of a turbine and generator and up into three spinning turbines. The generator is connected to a transmission tower. The arrow leads off the spinning turbines toward the next panel.
Variable Speed Hydropower Generator Emulation Test Bed
An arrow leads from the previous panel to an illustration of a hydropower dam on a rivier, next to cartoon wind turbines, three solar panels, and a stack of batteries.
Hydropower Integration With Megawatt-Scale Renewable and Energy Storage at ARIES

Hydropower emulation using NREL's ARIES platform uses actual hydropower data, megawatt-level hardware, and large-scale digital real-time simulation for prototyping controls and evaluating hydropower-specific technology. Illustration by Tara Smith, NREL

The Rapid Prototyping of Next-generation Hydro-controls (Hydro Emulation) project leverages NREL's ARIES platform, emulating hydropower in a controlled, real-world environment, from which NREL researchers will develop a controlled lab environment for hydropower-specific multitechnology evaluation.

This controlled lab environment, the Real-Time Hydropower Emulation Platform (RTHEP), is being developed at NREL's Flatirons Campus through the U.S. Department of Energy Water Power Technologies Office's Water Innovation for a Resilient Electricity System (HydroWIRES) Initiative. It will de-risk and prototype controls to interconnect hydropower technologies by emulating hydropower with actual hydropower plant data and control and power hardware-in-the-loop approaches.

Through a previously funded Water Power Technologies Office project, NREL researchers established data connectivity to collect operations data from actual hydropower plants and used a physics-informed machine learning approach to emulate hydropower plants, including turbine dynamics and hydrodynamics, in real time. RTHEP will expand this to megawatt scales with physics-informed, machine learning-based, nonlinear scalability to emulate the dynamic behavior of different hydropower designs and configurations.

This project uses the ARIES platform’s digital real-time simulation, actual hardware grid controllers, digital governors, variable-speed hydropower emulation, power electronic interfaces, and other renewable energy technologies—such as solar photovoltaics and wind turbines—as well as energy storage and conversion technologies, such as batteries and hydrogen electrolyzers.


The megawatt-scale hydropower emulation will incorporate several ARIES infrastructure assets, including:

  • A large cluster of digital real-time simulation for regional-level power system dynamics and controllable grid interface (19.9 MVA) for electrical power hardware-in-the-loop and controller hardware-in-the-loop experiments
  • Actual hardware grid controllers, digital governors, variable-speed hydropower emulation, and power electronic interfaces
  • A megawatt-scale (2-by-1.25-MW) variable-speed hydropower emulation platform for mechanical power hardware-in-the-loop experiments
  • Renewable energy assets (such as wind turbines and solar photovoltaics)
  • Energy storage and conversion technologies (such as batteries and hydrogen electrolyzers)
  • A low-power advanced power electronics building block test bed.

Industry Engagement

NREL's RTHEP team has engaged with the hydropower industry since the beginning of this project. A hydropower-focused industry advisory board—with members from Siemens, General Electric, Stantec, and Cordova Electric Cooperative—was created to provide feedback on hydropower technology evaluation using the ARIES platform. 

The industry advisory board will:

  • Inform the hydropower emulation approach and ensure industry-specific needs for hydropower integration and operational challenges are captured
  • Advise if RTHEP is an appropriate tool with which hydropower stakeholders can validate and characterize their technologies in an at-scale, real-world controlled environment.


The impacts of developing the RTHEP include:

  • Robust real-time connectivity to stream hydropower plant data from the field to the ARIES hydropower emulation platform
  • Data-driven, physics-informed machine learning representation of hydraulic models for real-time simulations
  • An integrated control and hardware-in-the-loop and data-driven control prototyping environment tightly coupled with megawatt-scale variable-speed hydropower emulation platform for power hardware-in-the-loop
  • Physics-informed, machine learning-based, nonlinear scalability to emulate the dynamic behavior of different hydropower design and configurations in real time
  • Design and evaluation of advanced power electronics interfaces that can be used to integrate new and emerging hydropower technologies into the grid.

Publications–Data-Driven Approach for Hydropower Plant Controller Prototyping Using Remote Hardware-in-the-Loop, Water Power Technologies Office Peer Review (2022)  

Water Power Generation–Hydropower and Marine Hydrokinetic Part 2, IEEE Power & Energy Society General Meeting (2021)


Hydropower Industry: Siemens, General Electric, Stantec, and Cordova Electric Cooperative

International Collaboration: University of South-Eastern Norway under a memorandum of understanding between the U.S. Department of Energy and the Research Council of Norway


Mayank Panwar

Researcher IV, Systems Engineering