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Mavel: Manufacturing Turbines and Looking Toward 2050

Hydropower firm Mavel was one of the first companies to be founded after the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia. Since then, it has grown from a small hydro engineering company to a world leader in hydroelectric turbine manufacturing. With 180 employees, two production facilities, and 100 proprietary turbine designs, it provides customers around the world with water-to-wire equipment packages. In this interview, Jeanne Hilsinger, the executive chairperson of parent company Mavel, a.s., and the president of its Mavel Americas subsidiary tells Hydro Leader about the company's history and its ambitions to help transform the world's energy mix by 2050. 

 

Hydro Leader: Please tell us about your background and your position at Mavel. 

Jeanne Hilsinger: I first encountered Mavel in 1993 and joined the company in 1995. I have worked full time for Mavel for the past 25 years. I initially served as the company’s chief financial officer and then as its director of marketing and strategy, and today my roles are executive chairperson of the parent company and president of the Mavel Americas, Inc., subsidiary. Mavel is and always has been managed as a partnership. I am one member of the four-person management board. The other three people are members of the company’s founding team. I’m the only partner without a background in engineering. In fact, I am the only person in a management position in the company without a background in engineering. I was trained as a journalist and then earned my master of business administration degree—not the typical background for a leader of an engineering and manufacturing company. 

Hydro Leader: Please tell us about the company’s history. 

Jeanne Hilsinger: Mavel was the 176th company registered under the new commercial code of what was then Czechoslovakia after the 1989 fall of communism in the country. Formally registered in Prague in 1990, Mavel was envisioned by a well-known Czech hydro professor, Dr. František Čihák. The professor brought together three of his best students to form Mavel with the goal of commercializing some of his patents. In 1990, Dr. Čihák would not have expected that his efforts would set the groundwork for a global leader in hydroelectric equipment. Necessity, however, is sometimes the mother of invention. Mavel was not able to secure the manufacturing capability it needed to make Dr. Čihák’s products from existing companies, so it secured manufacturing expertise and capability by leasing a portion of a former rail car repair facility in Benešov, a city about 30 minutes southwest of Prague. Eventually, Mavel bought the entire industrial complex and transformed the manufacturing hall into a state-of-the-art, International Organization for Standardization– certified engineering, research, development, and production center. 

The interior of the Štvanice hydroelectric project, located on an island in central Prague in the Czech Republic.

Simultaneously, Mavel purchased ČKD TurboTechnics, a spinoff of ČKD Blansko Strojírny, which had deep roots in the hydroelectric power business. The location, near the town of Blansko, is the hydro sweet spot of the country and birthplace of the Kaplan turbine. While Mavel was built on the aspirations of entrepreneurs and the ability to design and produce Kaplan turbines for low-head projects, the ČKD TurboTechnics acquisition brought Mavel significant tradition and experience in Francis and Pelton runners for use at higher-head projects. The ČKD TurboTechnics facility, powered by its own small hydroelectric power plant, is now fully integrated into the Benešov operations. The combination also gave Mavel a strategic advantage. Mavel was the first company with a global reach, a sole focus on small hydro, and the capability to offer its customers the full range of turbines: Kaplan, Francis, Pelton, and modular micro. 

Hydro Leader: What would you say is the forte of Mavel’s hydro turbine manufacturing?

Jeanne Hilsinger: Good question. We do manufacture turbines, and I would say that our in-house production capabilities are equal to or better than those of any of our competitors. However, our core business—our forte—is not manufacturing. Our real business is problem solving: finding engineered solutions for hydroelectric power owners and developers. Each hydroelectric power plant is unique, and each hydro project is unique, whether it is the development of a new project or the refurbishment of an existing site. Every project requires a customized solution. 

Our sales managers are engineers. Their job is to ask questions and gather information about the priorities of each customer and the economic, environmental, hydraulic, and structural conditions of the site. Once they understand the priorities and conditions, they pass that information on to the Mavel engineering team. That is where it begins. The team is composed of members of our engineering department, which includes hydraulic, civil, electrical, and mechanical engineers with hundreds of years of combined experience designing hydroelectric power plants around the world. The team’s challenge is to find the equipment solution that will meet the customer’s objectives while successfully adapting to the economic, civil, regulatory, environmental, and hydraulic conditions of the site. With our computational fluid dynamics (CFD) modeling capacity and fully engaged research and development department, we assume at the beginning that there are no limits and that anything is possible.

Thomas Edison is said to have described his process of exploration as follows: “When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.” Often, our starting point is finding the ways that will not work. This has led to some unusual solutions. On the recent Štvanice hydroelectric project on an island in central Prague, the ultimate solution was found after several early design studies failed. In the end, Mavel selected a solution that reversed the rotational direction of the turbine/generator unit to create a more efficient hydraulic water passage. This resulted in output 25 percent higher than guaranteed. On the new North Bala hydroelectric project in Ontario, Canada, challenged by a severely restricted site and angled intake, the team modeled hundreds of scenarios and went from the initial assumption that the envisioned project couldn’t be done to a finished project meeting the customer’s objectives. Solving problems is something our teams thrive on.

Hydro Leader: Please tell us about Mavel’s low-head hydro business. Is it a major portion of your manufacturing?

Jeanne Hilsinger: While we work on projects from high head to low head, Mavel’s most extensive experience is in low-head projects, and these projects make up more than 50 percent of our project volume. Our location has been advantageous for our low-head business. First, the turbine used for low-head projects is the Kaplan. In 1912, Viktor Kaplan, living in what is now the city of Brno in the Czech Republic, filed a patent for the Kaplan turbine. and the first demonstration installation was in the town of Poděbrady, Czech Republic. The area around Brno and nearby Blansko has remained the center of Kaplan excellence for more than a century. Mavel has been able to build on and continue this engineering excellence. We first delivered a small, 180‑kilowatt (kW) turbine to Germany in 2004. Unfortunately, the customer fled to Latin America with much of the cash meant for us, but for us the project was a success because Mavel had commissioned its first Kaplan turbine. More than 300 Kaplan turbines later, Mavel manufactures Kaplans with runner diameters of over 5 meters (m), or 16.4 feet, and outputs of up to 10 megawatts (MW). The company has over 100 proprietary designs of Kaplan PIT, Z, S, vertical, and bulb turbines, ranging from three blades to six. 

Second, Mavel is lucky to be located in the heart of Europe, where rivers with high water volume and low head are prevalent. This allowed Mavel, early in its history, to become a market leader in low-head installations in the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, and other European countries. All the Kaplan turbines at the 200 sites around the world we have worked on are still in operation and have met or exceeded performance guarantees.

While our location has allowed us to combine expertise with experience, our leadership in low-head Kaplan turbines in our target market is due to innovation. The Kaplan has been around for more than 100 years, but that does not mean that the design work is complete. CFD modeling, new computer numerical control (CNC) machining capabilities, and material developments have opened the door for innovation both in the design and the production of these runners. CFD modeling allows us to optimize the runner blade profile and the overall plant hydraulic design. New multiple-axis CNC machines allow us to transfer the design directly to production and to use new manufacturing procedures. At Mavel, the engineering and production processes are integrated, and each new turbine is an opportunity to improve.

Hydro Leader: What is the range of sizes of the turbines that Mavel manufactures? 

Jeanne Hilsinger: It varies by turbine type. Our smallest modular micro turbine in operation, which is in Kyoto, Japan, is only 4 kW, with the upper limits of this line being around 200 kW. The upper limit of the runner diameter of a Kaplan turbine is 5.5 m (18 feet), and the upper limit of its power is around 10 MW. The upper limit of the power of an individual Pelton or Francis machine is around 20 MW. 

Hydro Leader: What projects does Mavel currently have underway? 

Jeanne Hilsinger: As an industry, hydroelectric power is in a better situation than others in this time of COVID‑19. We are busy. Mavel has more than 20 projects underway around the world, in countries including Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Korea, Latvia, Poland, Slovakia, Ukraine, the United States, and Vietnam. The projects range in size from 150 kW to 11.5 MW. 

In North America, we are installing the second of three Kaplan Z turbines at NorthWestern Energy’s Hauser Hydroelectric Plant in Montana; providing a Francis turbine for San Diego County Water Authority; providing two Kaplan PIT turbines for Ontario Power Generation’s Calabogie Generating Station, each of which has a runner diameter of 3.2 m (10.5 feet) and will produce more than 5 MW; and providing a new Kaplan turbine for the City of Nashua, New Hamphsire’s Jackson Mill Hydroelectric Power Plant. 

Hydro Leader: How many countries does Mavel have turbines in today? 

Jeanne Hilsinger: Forty-four. We are 50 percent American owned and 50 percent Czech owned and consider Europe and America our two home markets. In addition to Europe and the Americas, we are also present in select markets in Asia and Africa. 

Hydro Leader: What is the delivery time for a turbine after it is ordered? 

Jeanne Hilsinger: That depends on the size and complexity of the project. The general delivery time for our projects, from signing to delivery, is 12–18 months. The schedule is dictated by a combination of what the customer requests and our realistic capabilities. Projects with multiple units can take longer; smaller, single units are faster. 

Hydro Leader: Where is the hydro market going? 

Jeanne Hilsinger: The hydro market is picking up speed and leading the charge toward the 2050 renewable energy mandates. COVID‑19, instead of blocking this trajectory, is accelerating it, since recovery efforts focused on infrastructure and renewables are increasing the demand for the expansion of hydroelectric power worldwide. 

2050 is a critical year. Policies are in place in almost every region, country, corporation, and institution to promote the growth of renewable energy, and most define their objectives with reference to the year 2050. While wind and solar power are often the focus of these plans, hydroelectric power is always included as well. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development aims for hydroelectric power to double by 2050, the International Renewable Energy Agency calls for 60 percent growth, and the United States–based National Hydro Association also has an objective of 60 percent. 

Hydroelectric power has several basic attributes that make it critical in meeting renewable energy objectives. First and most importantly, hydroelectric power plants are built to last. Many of the plants operating in the United States are more than 100 years old and use their original equipment. While I believe other renewable energy resources have an estimated life of 20–30 years, hydroelectric power plants last 50 or even 100 years. This means that hydroelectric power is the only renewable resource of which it can be said that if you invest a dollar today, that investment will easily take you to 2050 and beyond. 

Second, hydroelectrically generated power is not expensive. Hydroelectric power has the lowest levelized cost per kilowatt-hour produced of any energy source. If all tax incentives were canceled, hydroelectric power would still be the clear winner. 

Finally, with the rapid development of intermittent wind and solar power generation facilities and the slow but steady reduction in fossil fuel resources, the electric grid is going to need more baseload and storage assets to integrate and balance the changing energy mix. Hydro is that baseload and storage resource. 

Hydro Leader: What is your vision for Mavel over the next decade and beyond? 

Jeanne Hilsinger: Mavel’s mission, formulated 25 years ago, is to contribute to the global development of renewable energy resources by providing customers with hydropower technology that combines innovation, quality and value. 

Our vision for Mavel is closely tied to our mission. We would like to see hydroelectric power leading the growth of renewables in 10 years’ time. We would like to see Mavel supporting and accelerating that growth in its target markets by providing customers with solutions that continue to combine innovation, quality, and value. 

Jeanne Hilsinger is the executive chairperson of Mavel, a.s., and the president of its Mavel Americas subsidiary. She can be contacted at hilsinger@mavel.com.