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Hydropower In Details


Gezhou HidroPower Dam

Gezhou HidroPower Dam

Hydropower (from hydro meaning water) is energy that comes from the force of moving water. The fall and movement of water is part of a continuous natural cycle called the water cycle. Energy from the sun evaporates water in the earth’s oceans and rivers and draws it upward as water vapor.

When the water vapor reaches the cooler air in the atmosphere, it condenses and forms clouds. The moisture eventually falls to the earth as rain or snow, replenishing the water in the oceans and rivers. Gravity drives the water, moving it from high ground to low ground. The force of moving water can be extremely powerful.

Hydropower is called a renewable energy source because the water on the earth is continuously replenished by precipitation. As long as the water cycle continues, we won’t run out of this energy source.

History of Hydropower

Hydropower has been used for centuries. The Greeks used water wheels to grind wheat into flour more than 2,000 years ago. In the early 1800s, American and European factories used the water wheel to power machines. The water wheel is a simple machine. The water wheel is located below a source of flowing water.

It captures the water in buckets attached to the wheel and the weight of the water causes the wheel to turn. Water wheels convert the potential energy (gravitational energy) of the water into motion. That energy can then be used to grind grain, drive sawmills, or pump water.

In the late 19th century, the force of falling water was used to generate electricity. The first hydroelectric power plant was built at Niagara Falls in 1879. In the following decades, many more hydroelectric plants were built. At its height in the early 1940s, hydropower provided 33 percent of this country’s electricity.

By the late 1940s, the best sites for big dams had been developed. Inexpensive fossil fuel plants also entered the picture. At that time, plants burning coal or oil could make electricity more cheaply than hydro plants. Soon they began to underprice the smaller hydroelectric plants. It wasn’t until the oil shocks of the 1970s that people showed a renewed interest in hydropower.

Hydro Dams

It’s easier to build a hydro plant where there is a natural waterfall. That’s why the first hydro plant was built at Niagara Falls. Dams, which are artificial waterfalls, are the next best way.

Dams are built on rivers where the terrain will produce an artificial lake or reservoir above the dam. Today there are about 80,000 dams in the United States, but only three percent (2,000) have power-generating hydro plants. Most dams are built for flood control and irrigation, not electric power generation. A dam serves two purposes at a hydro plant. First, a dam increases the head or height of the water. Second, it controls the flow of water. Dams release water when it is needed for electricity production. Special gates called spillway gates release excess water from the reservoir during heavy rainfalls.

Hydropower Plants

Hydropower Plant Parts

Hydropower Plant Parts

As people discovered centuries ago, the flow of water represents a huge supply of kinetic energy that can be put to work. Water wheels are useful for generating mechanical energy to grind grain or saw wood, but they are not practical for generating electricity. Water wheels are too bulky and slow.

Hydroelectric plants are different. They use modern turbine generators to produce electricity, just as thermal (coal, oil, nuclear) power plants do, except that they do not produce heat to spin the turbines.

How a Hydro Plant Works

A typical hydro plant is a system with three parts:

  • a power plant where the electricity is produced.
  • a dam that can be opened or closed to control water flow
  • a reservoir (artificial lake) where water can be stored

To generate electricity, a dam opens its gates to allow water from the reservoir above to flow down through large tubes called penstocks. At the bottom of the penstocks, the fast-moving water spins the blades of turbines. The turbines are connected to generators to produce electricity. The electricity is then transported via huge transmission lines to a local utility company.

Head and Flow

The amount of electricity that can be generated at a hydro plant is determined by two factors: head and flow. Head is how far the water drops. It is the distance from the highest level of the dammed water to the point where it goes through the power-producing turbine.

Flow is how much water moves through the system––the more water that moves through a system, the higher the flow. Generally, a high-head plant needs less water flow than a low-head plant to produce the same amount of electricity.

Storing Energy

One of the biggest advantages of a hydropower plant is its ability to store energy. The water in a reservoir is, after all, stored energy. Water can be stored in a reservoir and released when needed for electricity production.

During the day when people use more electricity, water can flow through a plant to generate electricity. Then, during the night when people use less electricity, water can be held back in the reservoir. Storage also makes it possible to save water from winter rains for summer generating power, or to save water from wet years for generating electricity during dry years.

Pumped Storage Systems

Some hydro plants use pumped storage systems. A pumped storage system operates much as a public fountain does. The same water is used again and again. At a pumped storage hydro plant, flowing water is used to make electricity and then stored in a lower pool. Depending on how much electricity is needed, the water may be pumped back to an upper pool. Pumping water to the upper pool requires electricity so hydro plants usually use pumped storage systems only when there is peak demand for electricity.

Pumped hydro is the most reliable energy storage system used by American electric utilities. Coal and nuclear power plants have no energy storage systems. They must turn to gas and oil-fired generators when people demand lots of electricity. They also have no way to store any extra energy they might produce during normal generating periods.

Hydropower Production

How much electricity do we get from hydropower today? Depending on the amount of rainfall, hydro plants produce from five to ten percent of the electricity produced in this country (10 percent in 1997, 5.9 percent in 2008 due to the droughts in the west. In Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, hydropower supplies over 73 percent of the electricity each year. Today, there are about 78 million kilowatts of hydro generating capacity in the United States. That’s equivalent to the generating capacity of 80 large nuclear power plants. The biggest hydro plant in the U.S. is located at the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River in northern Washington State. The United States also gets some hydropower generated electricity from Canada.

Some New England utilities buy this imported electricity. What does the future look like for hydropower? The most economical sites for hydropower dams have already been developed so the development of big hydro plants is unlikely. Existing plants could be enlarged to provide additional generating capacity. Plus, many flood-control dams not equipped for electricity production could be retrofitted with generating equipment. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission estimates 30 thousand megawatts of additional generating capacity could be developed in the United States.

Hydropower for Baseload Power

Demand for electricity is not steady; it goes up and down. People use more electricity during the day when they are awake and using electrical appliances, and less at night when they are asleep.

People also use more electricity when the weather is very cold or very hot. Electric utility companies have to produce electricity to meet these changing demands. Baseload power is the electricity that utilities have to generate all the time. For that reason, baseload power should be cheap and reliable. Hydropower meets both these requirements.

Generating electricity with hydropower is the cheapest way to generate electricity in the U.S., and the fuel supply flowing water is always available. Hydro plants are more energy efficient than most thermal power plants, too. That means they waste less energy to produce electricity. In thermal power plants, a lot of energy is lost as heat. Hydro plants are about 95 percent efficient at converting the kinetic energy of the moving water into electricity.

Economics of Hydropower

Hydropower is the cheapest way to generate electricity today. No other energy source, renewable or nonrenewable, can match it.

Today, it costs about one cent per kWh (kilowatt-hour) to produce electricity at a typical hydro plant. In comparison, it costs coal plants about three cents per kWh and nuclear plants about two cents per kWh to generate electricity. Producing electricity from hydropower is cheap because, once a dam has been built and the equipment installed, the energy source—flowing water—is free.

Hydropower plants also produce power cheaply due to their sturdy structures and simple equipment. Hydro plants are
dependable and long-lived, and their maintenance costs are low compared to coal or nuclear plants. One requirement may increase hydropower’s costs in the future. The procedure for licensing and relicensing dams has become a lengthy
and expensive process. Many environmental impact studies must be undertaken and as many as 13 state and federal agencies must be consulted. It takes anywhere from three to seven years to get a license to build a hydroelectric dam or a relicense to continue operations.

Hydropower and the Environment

Hydropower potentially can harm fish

Hydropower can potentially harm fish

Hydropower dams can cause several environmental problems, even though they burn no fuel. Damming rivers may permanently alter river systems and wildlife habitats.

Fish, for one, may no longer be able to swim upstream. Hydro plant operations may also affect water quality by churning up dissolved metals that may have been deposited by industry long ago. Hydropower operations may increase silting, change water temperatures, and lower the levels of dissolved oxygen.

Some of these problems can be managed by constructing fish ladders, dredging the silt, and carefully regulating plant
operations. Hydropower has advantages, too. Hydropower’s fuel supply (flowing water) is clean and is renewed yearly by snow and rainfall. Furthermore, hydro plants do not emit pollutants into the air because they burn no fuel. With growing concern over greenhouse gas emissions and increased demand for electricity, hydropower may become more important in the future.

Hydropower facilities offer a range of additional benefits. Many dams are used to control flooding and regulate water supply, and reservoirs provide lakes for recreational purposes, such as boating and fishing.


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