History of Hydroelectric Power in the U.S.

city being powered by hydroelectric power

The concept of harnessing the power of water has been around for thousands of years. In the past, the ancient Greeks used water wheels for grinding wheat into flour. The technique has refined and further developed to produce the hydroelectric power plants that we know today.

The history of hydroelectric power has had global implications. However, hydroelectric power in the U.S. is particularly noteworthy. It comes as no surprise that hydroelectricity accounts for about seven percent of all electricity generated in the United States.

What is hydroelectric power?

Hydroelectric power is an option of clean, renewable energy that exploits the power of flowing water to produce electricity. There are notable differences between types of renewable energy, such as hydroelectric energy vs. solar power, in addition to cost and environmental impact.

In general, hydroelectric power is generated when flowing water is forced through a dam, turning the plant’s turbines, which in turn spins a series of magnets inside a generator, producing electric energy.

Development of Hydroelectric Power Turbines

Hydroelectric power has come a long way since the water wheel. The invention of turbine technology significantly contributed to hydropower technology.

In 1827, French engineer Benoit Fourneyron produced the earliest version of the Fourneyron reaction turbine. This turbine was capable of generating six horsepower of energy.

In 1849, British-American engineer James Francis designed the first modern water turbine, which is still currently the most widely-used water turbine in the world.

Later, American inventor Lester Allan Pelton developed the impulse water turbine in the 1870s. Afterward, Austrian professor Viktor Kaplan designed a propeller-type turbine with adjustable blades that became known as the Kaplan turbine in 1913.

History of Hydroelectric Power in the U.S.

The development of hydroelectric power in the United States has seen simple beginnings grow to impressive innovations.

Humble Beginnings

Hydroelectric power began with smaller projects. For example, in 1880, a dynamo driven by a water turbine provided arc lighting to a theatre and storefront in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

With modest origins, the first hydropower plant began generating electricity in Appleton, Wisconsin in 1882. This plant produced about 12.5 kilowatts (kW) at the time.

In the late 19th Century, the first U.S. commercial installation of an alternating current hydropower plant began operating in 1893 at the Redlands Power Plant in California. The water from the nearby Mill Creek spun Pelton waterwheels to generate electricity. Numerous other hydropower plants began operating around this time as well, with the most significant hydroelectric development of the time being the Edward Dean Adams Power Plant at Niagara Falls.


hoover dam providing hydroelectric power
A Century of Major Changes

The twentieth century witnessed impressive hydroelectric technological innovations as well as increased government involvement.

In 1902, the Bureau of Reclamation became involved in hydroelectric development as part of the Reclamation Act. They served to provide water resource management to the dry western areas of the United States, which led to more significant economic development. The Bureau of Reclamation later contributed to great hydroelectric projects, such as the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River and the Grand Coulee on the Columbia River.

The first large-scale pumped storage plant began operating the Rocky River Plant in New Milford, Connecticut. This new type of plant allowed for increased hydropower capacity because pumped storage acts like a battery, storing electricity for later use. Hydroelectric power plants now could meet the varying demand for electricity.

In 1933, the Tennessee Valley Authority was established to improve the navigability and provide flood control of the Tennessee River as well as electricity for the region. Two years later, the Federal Power Commission (FPC) was transformed into an independent agency known as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). This new agency’s authority extended to all hydroelectric projects, both publicly and privately owned that engaged in interstate commerce. For example, the FERC grants hydroelectric licenses as well as regulates the interstate sale of electricity and electric rates.

By 1936, one of the most well-known hydroelectric projects in history was completed. The Hoover Dam was built on the border of Nevada and Arizona on the Colorado River. As one of the largest hydroelectric power plants, it served to provide irrigation water, control floods, and supply power, generating 130,000 kW.

As America was still recovering from the Great Depression in 1940, President Roosevelt’s New Deal construction programs helped boost the economy. Hydroelectric power in the U.S. relied heavily on construction of new hydroelectric power plants resulted in three times more electrical generation capacity than that of 20 years earlier. Hydropower also accounted for a full 40 percent of all electrical production.

Unfortunately, there are certain environmental disadvantages of hydropower. As a result, President Richard Nixon launched regulations to regulate and ensure the protection of U.S. natural resources. These regulations included the National Environment Policy Act, the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act, and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

While the first large-scale pumped storage plant may have been the Rocky River Plant in New Milford, Connecticut in 1929, the Bath County Pumped Storage Plant became the world’s largest pumped storage plant in 1985. Bath County held this position for 20 years. After refurbishing its six turbines, it regained its title in 2009.

At the end of the twentieth century, the National Hydropower Association established the Hydropower Research Foundation in 1994. This foundation actively supports work in education, research, and workforce development to promote clean, affordable hydroelectric energy. By 1997, nearly 10% of all electricity in the United States came from hydropower.

History of Hydroelectric Power Incentives and Upgrades

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPAct) was the first major energy law enacted in more than a decade. This act addressed energy production in the United States by providing tax incentives and loan guarantees. This act also touched on energy efficiency, renewable energy, and the avoidance of greenhouse gases.

Funding from the Recovery Act allows the Department of Energy to upgrade hydropower facilities. Hydropower plants in the United States became more cost effective and productive in 2009.

While the larger hydropower plants received improvements, President Obama signed into law the Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act (H.R. 267) and the Bureau of Reclamation Small Conduit Hydropower Development and Rural Jobs Act (H.R. 687). These two bills aimed to boost the development of smaller U.S. hydropower projects by decreasing the regulatory difficulties associated with such projects.

Hydroelectric Power Today and the Future

The U.S. Department of Energy released the Hydropower Vision report on July 26, 2016. This report was a collaboration between the DOE and more than 300 experts to design a roadmap of hydropower growth between 2030 and 2050. A few key findings include the societal, environmental, and economic effects if hydropower could increase from 101 gigawatts (G.W.) of capacity in 2015 to 150 GW by 2050. The benefits from this growth include $209 billion in savings from greenhouse gas emission damages as well as $58 billion in healthcare costs and economic losses from air pollution.

The 2017 Hydropower Market Report gives industry stakeholders, policymakers, and the public, with current data and critical insights into the hydropower industry. Additionally, it includes data on how the U.S. hydroelectric industry growth compares to other countries across the world. A few key findings include how U.S. hydropower capacity has increased by 2,030 MW from 2006 to 2016, pumped storage hydropower capacity increased 2,074 MW since 2006, and hydropower refurbishment and upgrade projects worth $8.9 billion started from 2007 to 2017.

The 2018 Hydropower Status Report, now in its fifth edition, provides insights and sector trends on the hydropower industry. Interestingly, it also includes the results of a sector-wide survey on the future of hydropower.

For example, a record of 4,185 terawatt hours (TWh) in electricity came from hydroelectric power in 2017. This clean energy avoided up to 4 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions and other harmful pollutants. Moreover, 58.4 percent of surveyed hydropower decisionmakers and professionals anticipate expanding their company’s installation capacity in the next three years. Furthermore, 51.7 percent of those surveyed expect a rise in hydropower investments over the next three years.


The history of hydroelectric power has been filled with innovation. The future promises to expand on that innovation and play an integral part in green energy. Despite the ebb and flow of government regulation over the years, hydroelectric power in the U.S has remained a staple energy solution for many communities across the country. The expectation is that these types of green energy solutions will continue to develop and expand, subsequently decreasing our reliance on fossil fuels and possibly replace oil investing altogether.

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