Hydroelectric power water use



Hydroelectric power must be one of the oldest methods of producing power. No doubt, Jack the Caveman stuck some sturdy leaves on a pole and put it in a moving stream. The water would spin the pole that crushed grain to make their delicious...



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Hydroelectric power water use

Hydroelectric power must be one of the oldest methods of producing power. No doubt, Jack the Caveman stuck some sturdy leaves on a pole and put it in a moving stream. The water would spin the pole that crushed grain to make their delicious, low-fat prehistoric bran muffins. People have used moving water to help them in their work throughout history, and modern people make great use of moving water to produce electricity.

Hydroelectric power for the Nation

Although most energy in the United States is produced by fossil-fuel and nuclear power plants, hydroelectricity is still important to the Nation, as about 7 percent of total power is produced by hydroelectric plants. Nowadays, huge power generators are placed inside dams. Water flowing through the dams spin turbine blades (made out of metal instead of leaves) which are connected to generators. Power is produced and is sent to homes and businesses.

World distribution of hydropower

Hydropower is the most important and widely-used renewable source of energy.

Hydropower represents 19% of total electricity production.

China is the largest producer of hydroelectricity, followed by Canada, Brazil, and the United States (Source: Energy Information Administration).

Approximately two-thirds of the economically feasible potential remains to be developed. Untapped hydro resources are still abundant in Latin America, Central Africa, India and China.

Producing electricity using hydroelectric power has some advantages over other power-producing methods. Let's do a quick comparison:

Advantages to hydroelectric power:

Fuel is not burned so there is minimal pollution

Water to run the power plant is provided free by nature

Hydropower plays a major role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions

Relatively low operations and maintenance costs

The technology is reliable and proven over time

It's renewable - rainfall renews the water in the reservoir, so the fuel is almost always there

Read an expanded list of advantages of hydroelectric power from the Top World Conference on Sustainable Development conference, Johannesburg, South Africa (2002)

Disadvantages to power plants that use coal, oil, and gas fuel:

They use up valuable and limited natural resources

They can produce a lot of pollution

Companies have to dig up the Earth or drill wells to get the coal, oil, and gas

For nuclear power plants there are waste-disposal problems

Hydroelectric power is not perfect, though, and does have some disadvantages:

High investment costs

Hydrology dependent (precipitation)

In some cases, inundation of land and wildlife habitat

In some cases, loss or modification of fish habitat

Fish entrainment or passage restriction

In some cases, changes in reservoir and stream water quality

In some cases, displacement of local populations

Hydropower and the Environment

Hydropower is nonpolluting, but does have environmental impacts

Hydropower does not pollute the water or the air. However, hydropower facilities can have large environmental impacts by changing the environment and affecting land use, homes, and natural habitats in the dam area.

Most hydroelectric power plants have a dam and a reservoir. These structures may obstruct fish migration and affect their populations. Operating a hydroelectric power plant may also change the water temperature and the river's flow. These changes may harm native plants and animals in the river and on land. Reservoirs may cover people's homes, important natural areas, agricultural land, and archeological sites. So building dams can require relocating people. Methane, a strong greenhouse gas, may also form in some reservoirs and be emitted to the atmosphere. (EPA Energy Kids)

Reservoir construction is "drying up" in the United States

Gosh, hydroelectric power sounds great -- so why don't we use it to produce all of our power? Mainly because you need lots of water and a lot of land where you can build a dam and reservoir, which all takes a LOT of money, time, and construction. In fact, most of the good spots to locate hydro plants have already been taken. In the early part of the century hydroelectric plants supplied a bit less than one-half of the nation's power, but the number is down to about 10 percent today. The trend for the future will probably be to build small-scale hydro plants that can generate electricity for a single community.

As this chart shows, the construction of surface reservoirs has slowed considerably in recent years. In the middle of the 20th Century, when urbanization was occuring at a rapid rate, many reservoirs were constructed to serve peoples' rising demand for water and power. Since about 1980, the rate of reservoir construction has slowed considerably.

Typical hydroelectric powerplant

Hydroelectric energy is produced by the force of falling water. The capacity to produce this energy is dependent on both the available flow and the height from which it falls. Building up behind a high dam, water accumulates potential energy. This is transformed into mechanical energy when the water rushes down the sluice and strikes the rotary blades of turbine. The turbine's rotation spins electromagnets which generate current in stationary coils of wire. Finally, the current is put through a transformer where the voltage is increased for long distance transmission over power lines. (Source: Environment Canada)

Hydroelectric-power production in the United States and the world

As this chart shows, in the United States, most states make some use of hydroelectric power, although, as you can expect, states with low topographical relief, such as Florida and Kansas, produce very little hydroelectric power. But some states, such as Idaho, Washington, and Oregon use hydroelectricity as their main power source. in 1995, all of Idaho's power came from hydroelectric plants.

The second chart shows hydroelectric power generation in 2006 for the leading hydroelectric-generating countries in the world. China has developed large hydroelectric facilities in the last decade and now lead the world in hydroelectricity usage. But, from north to south and from east to west, countries all over the world make use of hydroelectricity—the main ingredients are a large river and a drop in elevation (along with money, of course).

Hydroelectric power: How it works

So just how do we get electricity from water? Actually, hydroelectric and coal-fired power plants produce electricity in a similar way. In both cases a power source is used to turn a propeller-like piece called a turbine, which then turns a metal shaft in anelectric generator, which is the motor that produces electricity. A coal-fired power plant uses steam to turn the turbine blades; whereas a hydroelectric plant uses falling water to turn the turbine. The results are the same.

Take a look at this diagram (courtesy of the Tennessee Valley Authority) of a hydroelectric power plant to see the details:

The theory is to build a dam on a large river that has a large drop in elevation (there are not many hydroelectric plants in Kansas or Florida). The dam stores lots of water behind it in the reservoir. Near the bottom of the dam wall there is the water intake. Gravity causes it to fall through the penstock inside the dam. At the end of the penstock there is a turbine propeller, which is turned by the moving water. The shaft from the turbine goes up into the generator, which produces the power. Power lines are connected to the generator that carry electricity to your home and mine. The water continues past the propeller through the tailrace into the river past the dam. By the way, it is not a good idea to be playing in the water right below a dam when water is released!

This diagram of a hydroelectric generator is courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

As to how this generator works, the Corps of Engineers explains it this way:
"A hydraulic turbine converts the energy of flowing water into mechanical energy. A hydroelectric generator converts this mechanical energy into electricity. The operation of a generator is based on the principles discovered by Faraday. He found that when a magnet is moved past a conductor, it causes electricity to flow. In a large generator, electromagnets are made by circulating direct current through loops of wire wound around stacks of magnetic steel laminations. These are called field poles, and are mounted on the perimeter of the rotor. The rotor is attached to the turbine shaft, and rotates at a fixed speed. When the rotor turns, it causes the field poles (the electromagnets) to move past the conductors mounted in the stator. This, in turn, causes electricity to flow and a voltage to develop at the generator output terminals."

Pumped storage: Reusing water for peak electricity demand

Demand for electricity is not "flat" and constant. Demand goes up and down during the day, and overnight there is less need for electricity in homes, businesses, and other facilities. For example, here in Atlanta, Georgia at 5:00 PM on a hot August weekend day, you can bet there is a huge demand for electricity to run millions of air conditioners! But, 12 hours later at 5:00 AM .... not so much. Hydroelectric plants are more efficient at providing for peak power demands during short periods than are fossil-fuel and nuclear power plants, and one way of doing that is by using "pumped storage", which reuses the same water more than once.

Pumped storage is a method of keeping water in reserve for peak period power demands by pumping water that has already flowed through the turbines back up a storage pool above the powerplant at a time when customer demand for energy is low, such as during the middle of the night. The water is then allowed to flow back through the turbine-generators at times when demand is high and a heavy load is placed on the system.

The reservoir acts much like a battery, storing power in the form of water when demands are low and producing maximum power during daily and seasonal peak periods. An advantage of pumped storage is that hydroelectric generating units are able to start up quickly and make rapid adjustments in output. They operate efficiently when used for one hour or several hours. Because pumped storage reservoirs are relatively small, construction costs are generally low compared with conventional hydropower facilities.

Advantages of Hydroelectric Power Production and Usage

Representatives of more than 170 countries reached consensus at the Top World Conference on Sustainable Development, in Johannesburg (2002), and at the 3rd World Forum on Water, in Kyoto (2003): all hydroelectric generation is renewable and merits international support. Read, below, the ten reasons leading them to this conclusion.

1. Hydroelectricity is a renewable energy source.

Hydroelectricity uses the energy of running water, without reducing its quantity, to produce electricity. Therefore, all hydroelectric developments, of small or large size, whether run of the river or of accumulated storage, fit the concept of renewable energy.

2. Hydroelectricity makes it feasible to utilize other renewable sources.

Hydroelectric power plants with accumulation reservoirs offer incomparable operational flexibility, since they can immediately respond to fluctuations in the demand for electricity. The flexibility and storage capacity of hydroelectric power plants make them more efficient and economical in supporting the use of intermittent sources of renewable energy, such as solar energy or Aeolian energy.

3. Hydroelectricity promotes guaranteed energy and price stability.

River water is a domestic resource which, contrary to fuel or natural gas, is not subject to market fluctuations. In addition to this, it is the only large renewable source of electricity and its cost-benefit ratio, efficiency, flexibility and reliability assist in optimizing the use of thermal power plants.

4. Hydroelectricity contributes to the storage of drinking water.

Hydroelectric power plant reservoirs collect rainwater, which can then be used for consumption or for irrigation. In storing water, they protect the water tables against depletion and reduce our vulnerability to floods and droughts.

5. Hydroelectricity increases the stability and reliability of electricity systems.

The operation of electricity systems depends on rapid and flexible generation sources to meet peak demands, maintain the system voltage levels, and quickly re-establish supply after a blackout. Energy generated by hydroelectric installations can be injected into the electricity system faster than that of any other energy source. The capacity of hydroelectric systems to reach maximum production from zero in a rapid and foreseeable manner makes them exceptionally appropriate for addressing alterations in the consumption and providing ancillary services to the electricity system, thus maintaining the balance between the electricity supply and demand.

6. Hydroelectricity helps fight climate changes.

The hydroelectric life cycle produces very small amounts of greenhouse gases (GHG). In emitting less GHG than power plants driven by gas, coal or oil, hydroelectricity can help retard global warming. Although only 33% of the available hydroelectric potential has been developed, today hydroelectricity prevents the emission of GHG corresponding to the burning of 4.4 million barrels of petroleum per day worldwide.

7. Hydroelectricity improves the air we breathe.

Hydroelectric power plants don't release pollutants into the air. They very frequently substitute the generation from fossil fuels, thus reducing acid rain and smog. In addition to this, hydroelectric developments don't generate toxic by-products.

8. Hydroelectricity offers a significant contribution to development.

Hydroelectric installations bring electricity, highways, industry and commerce to communities, thus developing the economy, expanding access to health and education, and improving the quality of life. Hydroelectricity is a technology that has been known and proven for more than a century. Its impacts are well understood and manageable through measures for mitigating and compensating the damages. It offers a vast potential and is available where development is most necessary.

9. Hydroelectricity means clean and cheap energy for today and for tomorrow.

With an average lifetime of 50 to 100 years, hydroelectric developments are long-term investments that can benefit various generations. They can be easily upgraded to incorporate more recent technologies and have very low operating and maintenance costs.

10. Hydroelectricity is a fundamental instrument for sustainable development.

Hydroelectric enterprises that are developed and operated in a manner that is economically viable, environmentally sensible and socially responsible represent the best concept of sustainable development. That means, "development that today addresses people's needs without compromising the capacity of future generations for addressing their own needs" (World Commission on the Environment and Development, 1987).

Three Gorges Dam: The world's largest hydroelectric plant

Photo credit: Le Grand Portage, Wikipedia

In 2012, the Three Gorges Dam in China took over the #1 spot of the largest hydroelectric dam (in electricity production), replacing the Itaipú hydroelectric power plant in Brazil and Paraguay. The Three Gorges Dam has a generating capacity of 22,500 megawatts (MW) compared to 14,000 MW for the Itaipu Dam. But, over a year-long period, both dams can generate about the same amount of electricity because seasonal variations in water availability on the Yangtze River in China limit power generation at Three Gorges for a number of months during the year.

The height of Three Gorges is about 594 feet (181 meters (m)) and the length is about 7,770 feet (2, 335 m). The dam creates the Three Gorges Reservoir, which has a surface area of about 400 square miles (1,045 square kilometers) and extends upstream from the dam about 370 miles (600 kilometers).

In the United States, the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River, Washington, is the largest, with a generating capacity of about 6,800 MW (5th overall worldwide).

Photo credit: Le Grand Portage, Wikipedia


Energy Information Administration (EIA): 


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