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Hydropower - Systems Overview

Hydropower - Systems Overview

Hydropower is based on simple concepts. Moving water turns a turbine, the turbine spins a generator, and electricity is produced. Many other components may be in a system, but it all begins with the energy already within the moving water.

What Makes Water Power

Water power is the combination of head and flow. Both must be present to produce electricity. Consider a typical hydro system. Water is diverted from a stream into a pipeline, where it is directed downhill and through the turbine (flow). The vertical drop (head) creates pressure at the bottom end of the pipeline. The pressurized water emerging from the end of the pipe creates the force that drives the turbine. More flow or more head produces more electricity. Electrical power output will always be slightly less than water power input due to turbine and system inefficiencies.

Head is water pressure, which is created by the difference in elevation between the water intake and the turbine. Head can be expressed as vertical distance (feet or meters), or as pressure, such as pounds per square inch (psi). Net head is the pressure available at the turbine when water is flowing, which will always be less than the pressure when the water is turned off (static head), due to the friction between the water and the pipe. Pipeline diameter has an effect on net head.

Flow is water quantity, and is expressed as “volume per time,” such as gallons per minute (gpm), cubic feet per second (cfs), or liters per minute. Design flow is the maximum flow for which your hydro system is designed. It will likely be less than the maximum flow of your stream (especially during the rainy season), more than your minimum flow, and a compromise between potential electrical output and system cost.

Head and flow are the two most important things you need to know about your site. You must have these measurements before you can seriously discuss your project, how much electricity it will generate, or the cost of components. Every aspect of a hydro system revolves around head and flow. In Part 2 of this series, we will discuss how to measure them.

Power Conversion & Efficiency

The generation of electricity is simply the conversion of one form of energy to another. The turbine converts the energy in the moving water into rotational energy at its shaft, which is then converted to electrical energy by the generator. Energy is never created; it can only be converted from one form to another. Some of the energy will be lost through friction at every point of conversion. Efficiency is the measure of how much energy is actually converted. The simple formula for this is:

Net Energy = Gross Energy x Efficiency

While some losses are inevitable as the energy in moving water gets converted to electricity, they can be minimized with good design. Each aspect of your hydro system—from water intake to turbine-generator alignment to transmission wire size—affects efficiency. Turbine design is especially important, and must be matched to your specific head and flow for best efficiency.
A hydro system is a series of interconnected components. Water flows in at one end of the system, and electricity comes out the other. Here is an overview of these components, from the water source to the electrical controls.

Water Diversion (Intake)
This variable-flow, crossflow turbine uses a belt-drive coupling to a 40 KW synchronous generator. It supplies electricity to a coffee processing plant in Panama.

This variable-flow, crossflow turbine uses a belt-drive coupling to a 40 KW synchronous generator.

The intake is typically the highest point of your hydro system, where water is diverted from the stream into the pipeline that feeds your turbine. A diversion can be as simple as a screened pipe dropped into a pool of water, or as big and complex as a dam across an entire creek or river. A water diversion system serves two primary purposes.

The first is to provide a deep enough pool of water to create a smooth, air-free inlet to your pipeline. (Air reduces horsepower and can damage your turbine.) The second is to remove dirt and debris.

Trash racks and rough screens can help stop larger debris, such as leaves and limbs, while an area of quiet water will allow dirt and other sediment to settle to the bottom before entering your pipeline. This helps reduce abrasive wear on your turbine.

Another approach is to use a fine, self-cleaning screen that filters both large debris and small particles.

Pipeline (Penstock)
Elements of a Hydroelectric System

Elements of a Hydroelectric System

The pipeline, or penstock, not only moves the water to your turbine, but is also the enclosure that creates head pressure as the vertical drop increases. In effect, the pipeline focuses all the water power at the bottom of the pipe, where the turbine is. In contrast, an open stream dissipates the energy as the water travels downhill.

Pipeline diameter, length, material, and routing all affect efficiency. Guidelines are available for matching the size of your pipeline to the design flow of your system. As you’ll see in the next article in this series, a small-diameter pipeline can considerably reduce your available horsepower, even though it can carry all available water.Larger diameter pipelines have less friction as the water travels through.


The powerhouse is simply a building or box that houses your turbine, generator, and controls. Its main function is to provide a place for the system components to be mounted, and to protect them from the elements. Its design can affect system efficiency, especially with regard to how the water enters and exits your turbine. For example, too many elbows leading to the turbine can create turbulence and head loss.

Likewise, any restrictions to water exiting the turbine may increase resistance against the turbine’s moving parts.

An in-stream screen keeps debris and silt out of the penstock at the small-stream intake for a microhydro system in Washington.

An in-stream screen keeps debris and silt out of the penstock at the small-stream intake for a microhydro system in Washington.

The turbine is the heart of the hydro system, where water power is converted into the rotational force that drives the generator. For maximum efficiency, the turbine should be designed to match your specific head and flow. There are many different types of turbines, and proper selection requires considerable expertise. A Pelton design, for example, works best with medium to high heads. A crossflow design works better with lower head but higher flow. Other turbine types, such as Francis, turgo, and propeller, each have optimum applications.

Turbines can be divided into two major types. Reaction turbines use runners (the rotating portion that receives the water) that operate fully immersed in water, and are typically used in low to moderate head systems with high flow. Examples include Francis, propeller, and Kaplan.
Impulse turbines use runners that operate without being immersed, driven by one or more high-velocity jets of water. Examples include Pelton and turgo. Impulse turbines are typically used with moderate-to-high head systems, and use nozzles to produce the high-velocity jets. Some impulse turbines can operate efficiently with as little as 5 feet (1.5 m) of head.

The crossflow turbine is a special case. Although technically classified as an impulse turbine because the runner is not entirely immersed in water, this “squirrel cage” type of runner is used in applications with low to moderate head and high flow. The water passes through a large, rectangular opening to drive the turbine blades, in contrast to the small, high-pressure jets used for Pelton and turgo turbines.
Regardless of the turbine type, efficiency is in the details. Each turbine type can be designed to meet vastly different requirements. The turbine system is designed around net head and design flow. These criteria not only influence which type of turbine to use, but are critical to the design of the entire turbine system.

Minor differences in specifications can significantly impact energy transfer efficiency. The diameter of the runner, front and back curvatures of its buckets or blades, casting materials, nozzle (if used), turbine housing, and quality of components all affect efficiency and reliability.

Drive System

The drive system couples the turbine to the generator. At one end, it allows the turbine to spin at the rpm that delivers best efficiency. At the other, it drives the generator at the rpm that produces correct voltage and frequency— frequency applies to alternating current (AC) systems only. The most efficient and reliable drive system is a direct, 1:1 coupling between the turbine and generator.

This is possible for many sites, but not for all head and flow combinations. In many situations, especially with AC systems, it is necessary to adjust the transfer ratio so that both turbine and generator run at their optimum (but different) speeds. These types of drive systems can use either gears, chains, or belts, each of which introduces additional efficiency losses into the system. Belt systems tend to be more popular because of their lower cost.

Hydro Terms
FlowFrancis TurbineFriction LossHead
Refers to the quantity of water supplied from a water source or exiting a nozzle per unit of time. Commonly measured in gallons per minute (gpm).A type of reaction hydro-turbine used in low to medium heads. It consists of fixed vanes on a shaft. Water flows down through the vanes, driving the shaft.Lost energy due to pipe friction. In hydro systems, pipe sized too small can lead to serious friction losses.The difference in elevation between a source of water and the location at which the water from that source may be used (synonym: vertical drop). Expressed in vertical distance or pressure.
HeadraceHydroelectricityImpulse TurbineIntake
A flume or channel that feeds water into a hydro turbine.Any electricity that is generated by the flow of water.Turbines with runners that operate in air, driven by one or more high-velocity jets of water from nozzles. Typically used with moderate- to high- head systems. Examples include Pelton and turgo.The structure that receives the water and feeds it into the penstock (pipeline). Usually incorporates screening or filtering to keep debris and aquatic life out of the system.
Pelton WheelPenstock
A common impulse turbine runner (named after inventor Lester Pelton) made with a series of cups or “buckets” attached to a hub.The pipe in a hydro system that carries the water from the intake to the turbine.

To be continued soon in next article: Hydropower – Systems Overview (2)

SOURCE: Dan New,


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