UZH-Spin-off

Precision Predictions for Hydropower Plants

The UZH spin-off ExoLabs has developed a model that can predict snowmelt and help hydropower operators generate energy more efficiently. The innovative business idea has now won the funding and support of the European Union.

Nathalie Huber

Grimselstausee
Grimselstausee
ExoLabs’ snow monitoring system model helps hydroelectric plants accurately predict the water resources in their reservoirs. (Image: Grimselstausee / iStock / stefanschurr)

 

The UZH spin-off ExoLabs is one of 15 winners of the EU’s Parsec Accelerator program. The program supports new products and projects that show great potential in the food, energy or environment sectors.

ExoLabs applied for the two-stage accelerator program with a joint project with Norwegian start-up Think Outside and UBIMET from Austria. The group will receive funding to the tune of EUR 110,000 as well as support for its innovative idea of using remote sensing to help hydropower operators generate energy in a more profitable manner. 

Predicting water inflow

“We want to provide hydropower operators with predictions for snowmelt and water inflow to help them generate energy in the most profitable manner,” says Reik Leiterer, co-founder of ExoLabs and academic associate at UZH’s Science Lab. 

Snow is an important source of water for hydroelectric plants, as throughout the summer it provides meltwater that flows into water reservoirs. If the operators of a plant know precisely when and how much meltwater flows into their water reservoirs, they can optimize water retention – as well as power production. This also has a positive effect when it comes to finances. “With the ability to more accurately manage water resources in its reservoirs, a 500 MW hydroelectric plant can save up to half a million francs each year,” emphasizes Leiterer. However, this valuable information about the snow cover in the water reservoirs’ catchment area is currently still unavailable to many operators of hydropower plants.

Perfect combination

ExoLabs, Think Outside and UBIMET thus joined forces to develop a snow monitoring and forecasting system that helps hydropower operators plan ahead. The three businesses’ different areas of expertise complement each other perfectly.

ExoLabs uses remote sensing as a tool to understand and monitor the influence of human activities on the environment. The UZH spin-off’s state-of-the-art data analysis techniques make it possible to simulate, evaluate and predict environmental changes.

This information about the environment is also of use to hydropower operators, as it presents, among other things, the spread and depth of snow cover as well as the amounts of water contained therein – in daily maps with a resolution of 20 meters. 

A digital map presenting the spread and depth of the snow
A digital map presenting the spread and depth of the snow
A digital map created by ExoLabs presenting the spread and depth of the snow cover around the Aletsch glacier. (Image: ExoLabs)

Measurements in the field 

These maps are enhanced by Norwegian start-up Think Outside. The company uses a specially developed sensor to measure the snow’s properties. “These precise data from the field enable us to calibrate and validate our satellite images and improve our product,” says Leiterer.

Meanwhile, UBIMET from Austria provides weather forecasts and calculates precipitation amounts in the form of snow. “This element also adds to our model – for example when heavy clouds make it difficult to read our satellite images,” says Leiterer. UBIMET can also forecast the relevant wind strengths and directions, which is important when it comes to snow distribution.

“Our collaboration and various fields of expertise enable us to develop a snow monitoring system that helps hydropower operators accurately predict how much meltwater flows into their water reservoirs,” summarizes Leiterer.

Developing showcase projects

To launch their product on the market, the group is currently working on a market strategy that will be ready by the end of the year. In addition, they are planning to develop showcase projects with select companies. “As we’re offering a new service, we first need to have a few projects with hydropower operators under our belt, so that we can convince further potential clients,” says Leiterer. A first cooperation is already planned with Kraftwerke Oberhasli (KWO). In the medium term, the group also wants to break out onto the international stage. “Our model is scalable and has the potential to serve hydropower stations around the world, but there are over 130 hydropower plants relevant to us in Europe alone,” says Leiterer. 

Background

ExoLabs

ExoLabs was founded in 2017 and is based in Zurich. Both co-founders, Reik Leiterer and Hendrik Wulf, have kept their roles at UZH.

ExoLabs already provides earth observation data to other companies: For example, Outdooractive uses the UZH spin-off’s snow maps to provide snow cover information for alpine touring. The spin-off’s products and services are also used in the area of land use, among others by Swiss Re and the Swiss Federal Statistical Office.

ExoLabs 

 

The PARSEC Accelerator

The PARSEC Accelerator is funded by the “Horizon 2020” Research and Innovation program of the European Union. It supports the creation of new earth observation-based products and services in the food, energy and environment sectors. The program is aimed at SMEs, start-ups, entrepreneurs and researchers. The 15 winners selected by a panel of experts receive EUR 100,000 each as well as the coaching, matchmaking and promotion needed to develop and launch their products and services into the global market.  

Parsec Accelerator

Nathalie Huber, editor UZH News; English translation by Philip Isler, UZH Communications

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