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History of Hydropower

Humans have been harnessing water to perform work for thousands of years. The Greeks used water wheels for grinding wheat into flour more than 2,000 years ago. Besides grinding flour, the power of the water was used to saw wood and power textile mills and manufacturing plants.
For more than a century, the technology for using falling water to create hydroelectricity has existed. The evolution of the modern hydropower turbine began in the mid-1700s when a French hydraulic and military engineer, Bernard Forest de Bélidor wrote Architecture Hydraulique. In this four volume work, he described using a vertical-axis versus a horizontal-axis machine.
During the 1700s and 1800s, water turbine development continued. In 1880, a brush arc light dynamo driven by a water turbine was used to provide theatre and storefront lighting in Grand Rapids, Michigan; and in 1881, a brush dynamo connected to a turbine in a flour mill provided street lighting at Niagara Falls, New York. These two projects used direct-current technology.


Alternating current is used today. That breakthrough came when the electric generator was coupled to the turbine, which resulted in the world's, and the United States', first hydroelectric plant located in Appleton, Wisconsin, in 1882. (Read more about the Appleton hydroelectric power plant on the Library of Congress web page.)




Hydropower used by the Greeks to turn water wheels for grinding wheat into flour, more than 2,000 years ago.


French hydraulic and military engineer Bernard Forest de Bélidor wrote Architecture Hydraulique, a four-volume work describing vertical- and horizontal-axis machines.


U.S. Army Corps of Engineers founded, with establishment of Chief Engineer for the Continental Army.


Michigan's Grand Rapids Electric Light and Power Company, generating electricity by dynamo belted to a water turbine at the Wolverine Chair Factory, lit up 16 brush-arc lamps.


Niagara Falls city street lamps powered by hydropower.


World's first hydroelectric power plant began operation on the Fox River in Appleton, Wisconsin.


About 45 water-powered electric plants in the U.S. and Canada.


San Bernardino, Ca., opens first hydroelectric plant in the west.


Two hundred electric plants in the U.S. use waterpower for some or all generation.


First Federal Water Power Act.


Bureau of Reclamation established.


Hydropower provided 15% of U.S. electrical generation.


Hydropower provided 25% of U.S. electrical generation. Federal Power Act establishes Federal Power Commission authority to issue licenses for hydro development on public lands.


Tennessee Valley Authority established.


Federal Power Commission authority extended to all hydroelectric projects built by utilities engaged in interstate commerce.


Bonneville Dam, first Federal dam, begins operation on the Columbia River. Bonneville Power Administration established.


Hydropower provided 40% of electrical generation. Conventional capacity tripled in United States since 1920.


Conventional capacity nearly tripled in United States since 1940.


About 10% of U.S. electricity comes from hydropower. Today, there is about 80,000 MW of conventional capacity and 18,000 MW of pumped storage.


The Appleton Hydroelectric Power Plant

Wisconsin was home to the world’s first hydroelectric power plant, which began operations on September 30, 1882. The plant was built by a paper manufacturer, H.J. Rogers, and at first, the Appleton plant generated enough power to light his home, the plant and a nearby building.


Construction of the Hoover Dam

Pumped Storage

Pumped storage is an essential solution for grid reliability, providing one of the few large-scale, affordable means of storing and deploying electricity. Pumped storage projects store and generate energy by moving water between two reservoirs at different elevations. At times of low electricity demand, like at night or on weekends, excess energy is used to pump water to an upper reservoir. During periods of high electricity demand, the stored water is released through turbines in the same manner as a conventional hydro station, flowing downhill from the upper reservoir into the lower and generating electricity. The turbine is then able to also act as a pump, moving water back uphill.





Conventional hydropower


Conventional hydropower projects make up the majority of the water power generated in the U.S. today and have been doing so reliably for decades.


Some conventional hydropower projects use a dam to collect and release water in controlled circumstances. Dams are often built on rivers where there is a drop in elevation creating what is known as “head” — the height difference between the water contained in the reservoir behind the dam and that of the water released below the dam, use the gravity of the flowing water to produce clean renewable power. A higher head means that water will flow with more force through a turbine to generate more power.
Water stored behind a dam enters the turbine through a pipe called a penstock. Water flows from the penstock to turn the blades of a turbine, which spins a shaft connected to the generator that generates electricity. Water then flows out of the turbine and back into the river beyond.




The Future of Hydropower

Predicting river flows in decades to come is tough, but there's still lots of hydropower potential to be had.



Energy from river water supplies about one-fifth of the world’s electricity—with 850 to 900 gigawatts of installed capacity worldwide. More than 60 countries get over half their electricity from hydropower. But figuring out how much hydropower will be available in the future, and how those highly dependent nations will fare, is becoming more difficult.


The old way of predicting stream flow—by taking records of past flow and designing dams based on those amounts—is ”becoming more complicated because of climate change,” says Dennis Lettenmaier, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Washington, in Seattle. ”[That’s] not a good way to do it anymore.”

Indeed, as the global climate changes—due to both natural fluctuations and human influence—the anticipation of future volatility has led to some confounding predictions. A study commissioned by the Australian government found that average surface water availability in the country’s Murray-Darling river basin—which is critical to the country’s agriculture—could shrink by as much as 34 percent by 2030, or it could rise by up to 11 percent.

In tropical and midlatitude rivers, water sources are already flowing less or drying up altogether. A 2009 study by the National Center for Atmospheric Research, in Boulder, Colo., found ”significant changes” in the stream flow of a third of the world’s large rivers from 1948 to 2004, with 6 percent less freshwater flowing into the Pacific and 3 percent less making it to the Indian Ocean. Drainage into the Arctic Ocean, however, rose by about 10 percent.

Shrinking rivers have already reduced or even shut down power generation in existing dams when their reservoirs dropped below critical levels. As a result, drought-stricken countries like Kenya, the Philippines, and Venezuela have suffered periodic blackouts and electricity rationing in recent years. Kenya is quickly developing geothermal and wind power to compensate for unreliable hydropower.


Scientists at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology have attempted to tackle the prediction challenge. Using 12 climate models, 8 of which had to agree in order to contribute to the results, they examined how the world’s rivers will likely change over the next 40 years and what that will mean for hydropower production [see illustration, ”Projected Changes in Hydropower Generation (2050)”]. They found that while midlatitude areas will generally experience reductions in river flow and thus hydropower output, some areas, such as Northern Europe, East Africa, and Southeast Asia, will probably see a boost.
As expected, the most at-risk areas are those that have a high dependence on hydropower but will face decreasing river runoff. In Southern Africa, for instance, drier conditions could mean a decline of 70 gigawatt-hours per year in hydropower capacity by 2050. Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Venezuela, and parts of Brazil are likely to be hit hard, too.


According to Byman Hamududu, a native of Zambia and one of the lead researchers on the Norwegian study, Norway and other far north countries, where river runoff is likely to increase, have the ability to adapt quickly—for example, by adding turbines to already existing dams to put the extra flow to good use.

In other places, particularly in East Africa, where runoff will probably increase, it is ”doubtful if this increase will be put to use,” Hamududu says, because countries may not have the capacity, resources, or political will to develop it.

There’s little that can be done in places that will experience reductions in river runoff, Hamududu says. But some hydropower stations, such as the United States’ iconic Hoover Dam, are considering swapping out their turbines for new ones that will work more efficiently at lower water levels.


Even though the repercussions are unclear, dams are being built at breakneck speed in places like Brazil, China, and India, much to the chagrin of environmentalists worldwide and the communities the dams affect.
But in some places, the case for building more hydropower capacity is strong. In Africa, only about 7 percent of the economic potential for new hydro projects has been developed, according to the International Hydropower Association (IHA). Getting Africa closer to the level of hydroelectric development in the United States or Europe—70 percent and 75 percent, respectively—would provide a vast resource for the continent, says IHA business director Michael Fink. Those levels might be ”the best trade-off between deployment using hydropower and preserving some rivers in a natural state,” he says.

However, the challenge of predicting how a hydroelectric dam will perform in the years to come—and the ability of a developing government to keep it up and running—is now making this energy resource a riskier, and perhaps in some cases unpalatable, investment.

The Hydropower of Tomorrow

Hydroelectricity is a renewable, non-polluting energy. It does not cause any greenhouse gas emissions or produce any toxic waste. It currently represents almost 20% of global electrical capacity and has development potential of 3 times its current level. While the investment required and the human and environmental impact weigh heavily on large dam-building projects, the future seems promising for small hydro.

Hydropower's Advantages Mean that it Has a Promising Future...

has low operating and maintenance costs. Its life cycle is extremely long; and it is highly reliable in operational terms because it is a tried and tested technology. In France alone, of the sixty-odd large dams still in use, many were built before 1960. The oldest, located in Nievre, was opened in 1858.


Hydropower can be used to meet electricity requirements at times of fluctuating demand.


Hydropower can also be used to meet electricity requirements at times of fluctuating demand. Although it is not possible to store electricity on a large scale, water can be contained in large reservoirs using dams or dikes. This is a simple, easy way to store potential energy. What's more, a hydroelectric power plant can reach maximum capacity within a few minutes. By comparison, a thermal power plant takes several hours to reach full capacity, and a nuclear power plant takes four times longer than that.

... but Significant Obstacles to Overcome

On the face of it, hydropower seems to have everything going for it. But building colossal dams and retaining huge amounts of water have human and envionmental consequences.
   • If these consequences are not considered, a dam's construction can have serious environmental implications. For instance, it can hinder the migration of some aquatic species, affect water tables, shake up suspended matter and sediment, and cause noise pollution. What's more, the environmental structures in place are disrupted upstream by reservoir construction and downstream by the drop in waterflow. It can take several decades to restore a sustainable environmental balance to the area. In any case, long and costly studies are necessary to measure the environmental impact of building a dam.

   • Apart from its environmental impact, creating a reservoir also affects human activity. It is sometimes necessary to displace people or economic activities (such as farming)- upstream to create a reservoir and downstream because the areas bordering the river dry out.


Large and medium-sized dams are also very expensive. Governments increasingly try to obtain funding from private sources or from large international organizations such as the World Bank to finance these projects; but because many believe that they take too long to pay off and become profitable, hydropower projects have difficulty attracting investors.
The future of hydropower therefore depends to a large extent on the persuasiveness of states and on potential public-private agreements.

Energy can be produced from waves.

True. Using wave energy is a more environmentally-friendly way of using hydraulics on a smaller scale. The largest wave energy project in the world is off the coast of St. Ives in Cornwall. Known as Wave Hub, this facility will be deployed on the seabed and an array of devices will be connected to it to produce energy from waves. One day, this facility could generate 20 megawatts of electricity.

Future Opportunities

Hydropower still ranks first among renewable energy sources and it remains essential. Hydroelectricity currently accounts for almost 90% of renewable electricity production worldwide1.
The planet has yet to achieve its full hydroelectric potential- at about 15,000 TWh, its potential is 3 times higher than current levels2.

In the future, smaller scale, more environmentally friendly ways of using hydropower may be developed. These include small hydro projects which use natural river currents and waterwheels (Noria) to produce energy, or tidal and wave energy. In this case, the focus is on using water's natural cycle rather than changing it to produce energy. The techniques used are less invasive, therefore more environmentally friendly.
All over the world, there are a number of ways in which production could be developed, by:
   • Adding new turbines at existing hydroelectric facilities to step up production from 10 to 50 MW 
   • Building new dams

   • Developing small hydro (SH) plants producing 0.1-10 MW

   • Upgrading existing water wheels (pico hydro power, with capacity of 10-100 kW) as is the case with many current and completed projects (such as the Chappes water wheel in Northeastern France).





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