Hydropower: Hydroelectric Energy Uses Today

different hydroelectric energy use

Hydroelectric power is a popular source of clean, renewable energy. It has been around as an electricity source since the late 19th century and currently provides nearly 16 percent of the world’s electricity. In the United States alone, hydropower accounts for about half of all electricity from renewable sources, and every state now uses hydroelectric energy.

There are numerous distinct advantages of hydropower energy due to high electricity demand. Although there are also limitations, the uses of hydropower energy continue to grow, making it an attractive alternative to oil investing initiatives.

What Is Hydropower?

Hydropower harnesses the power of flowing water to produce energy. The most common type of a hydroelectric plant in an impoundment facility that uses a dam.

In a hydroelectric impoundment facility, the dam creates a reservoir by withholding a natural body of water, typically a river or a lake. The water is systematically forced through a dam to turn the blades of the plant’s turbines, taking advantage of gravity and the natural drops in elevation.

The spinning turbine rotates a series of magnets inside the plant’s generator. In turn, the magnets spin past copper coils, generating electricity. Transmission lines connect our homes and businesses to the plant to receive energy.

Who Uses Hydroelectric Energy?

Many countries around the world use hydroelectric power on a daily basis. The largest hydroelectric dam in the world is currently located in Three Gorges Dam, China. It produces approximately 87 TWh per annum and spans 2.3 kilometers.

While Three Gorges Dam formerly held the world record for energy production in 2015, the Itaipu Dam in Brazil took the title in 2016 with a current power output of 89.5 TWh. Moreover, on April 16, 2019, Turkey set a new daily record in hydroelectric power generation by producing more than 366.7 million kWh in one day.

Although other countries do not hold records for hydroelectric production, many countries excel with the percentage of electricity derived from hydropower. For instance, 100 percent of electricity in Albania and Paraguay is procured from hydroelectric generation. Many countries, such as the United States, have plans for increased hydropower output and utilization.

History of Hydroelectric Power

Exploiting the power of water has been around for thousands of years. In the ancient times, the Greeks once used water wheels for grinding wheat into flour. However, it wasn’t until the development of power turbines that laid the foundation for hydroelectric power.

In 1827, French engineer Benoit Fourneyron invented the Fourneyron reaction turbine. A few years later, in 1831, Michael Faraday created the first electric generator. Hydroelectricity development was picking up momentum. Lester Allan Pelton developed the impulse water turbine in the 1870s. Finally, in 1878, the first hydroelectric power plant produced energy to power a single lamp in Northumberland, England.

The first Edison hydroelectric power plant began operating in 1882 in Appleton, Wisconsin, producing about 12.5 kilowatts (kW). Nearly a decade later, Redlands Power Plant became the first U.S. commercial installation of an alternating current hydropower plant. By 1920, approximately 40 percent of the power generation in the United States was hydroelectric.

These strides in hydropower generation prompted the creation of commissions as well as regulations to manage interstate commerce of electricity and electric rates, hydroelectric licenses, and environmental protections. The 20th century marked significant developments and the expansion of hydropower all over the world.

uses of hydropower

How is Hydroelectric Energy Used Today?

Hydropower is used in a variety of ways that benefit consumers as well as the environment.

Clean Renewable Electricity

The first primary use of hydroelectric energy is to provide electricity to consumers. Particularly when comparing hydroelectric energy costs, hydropower is cost-competitive. It is also a renewable power source, making it more reliable than rapidly depleting fossil fuels.

Another advantage is that water is not affected by geopolitical events or market shifts. After the upfront costs of building a hydropower plant, the cost of operation and maintenance are relatively low and stable along with virtually no production costs. For example, a hydroelectric power plant may cost between three and five cents per kilowatt hour with large generation capacities. Furthermore, hydroelectric power plants have a long lifespan of between 50 to 100 years, making it a cost-effective investment.

Energy Storage

Other critical uses of hydropower include energy storage. Hydroelectric pumped storage power plants operate similar to a battery, where it can store electricity for later use. In 2009, there was over 100 GW of global pumped hydroelectric storage generating capacity.

In pumped storage plants, there are two hydroelectric dams, each with a reservoir. The two pools are at different elevations. The water begins at the lower altitude and is pumped uphill to be stored during off-peak electric demand periods. During high usage periods, the water is released back to the lower reservoir, turns the turbine and generates electricity. As a result, pumped hydro storage is load balancing and allows grid operators to meet the varying demand for electricity.

With this energy storage tool, capital investments can be reduced, since hydroelectric power plants are less expensive to operate and run compared to fossil fuels energy plants. Additionally, hydroelectric plants can quickly go from zero power to maximum output to respond to a change in electrical demand within seconds.

Flood Risk Management

In addition to energy production, hydroelectric power plants are sometimes used in flood risk management. For example, the Three Gorges Dam in China also serves to prevent flooding. The area around the Jinjiang River and Dongting Lake has a historical problem of frequent floods. The Three Gorges Dam was designed to control the water from upper stream to reduce the water and sand sediment from pouring into the Dongting Lake during flood season, until a more optimal time to discharge the water. During severe floods, the dam can hold the water long enough to evacuate affected areas before releasing the water.

Irrigation for Agriculture

The ancient Egyptians were the first civilization to use hydropower for irrigation purposes. It enabled farmers to continue to grow crops year-round even if there was a drought. Similarly, hydropower dams still play a crucial role in irrigation by diverting water. For example, three million acres of irrigated land requires more than 12 trillion gallons of water in Colorado.

Recreational Facility

Even with the majority of the uses of hydropower playing a vital role in the community, an extra advantage of hydroelectric energy is the full range of reactional activities that can be held at its facilities. Many of these public facilities permit swimming, fishing, and boating.

For example, the hydroelectric power plant operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers provides 33 percent of all freshwater fishing opportunities in the country, including fishing tournaments.

Future Uses of Hydropower

One of the main objections to hydropower is its negative impact on fish migration. Dams potentially change migration patterns and ultimately damage fish populations. For example, dams have eliminated 40 percent of salmon and steelhead habitats in the Columbia River Basin.

However, technology continues to improve to increase hydropower’s effectiveness while lowering its environmental and cultural effects, such as advances in fish-friendly turbines. One of the most advanced fish ladders is located at the Thompson Falls hydroelectric plant in Montana. This full-length fish ladder was designed explicitly for the threatened fish species bull trout to climb 48 steps to reach the other side.

Although fish ladders do not guarantee that the entire fish population passes through the dams safely, studies and new technologies strive to improve operations and increase sustainability. The United States Department of Energy’s 2018 Hydropower Vision report also provides optimistic insight.

The report defined the economic, environmental, and societal benefits of hydroelectric power if the United States increased its current hydropower capacity to 150 GW by 2050. This roadmap of hydropower growth could dictate the energy future of hydropower generation in the United States.

A few significant findings of the 2018 Hydropower Vision report include a savings of $58 billion in healthcare costs and economic damages from air pollution. On the other hand, increased hydropower production could reduce the cumulative greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 5.6 gigatonnes.

These findings support the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s AR5 Climate Change report that outlined the long-term economic, environmental, and social costs of climate change should it continue to progress at the current rate. Moreover, as the world’s population continues to consume more energy, the need for clean, renewable alternatives support an increase in hydroelectricity generation in the future.


The United States currently has 90,000 dams, but only 3 percent currently support hydroelectric generators to produce electricity. Nonetheless, it has great potential to convert non-powered dams into hydroelectric dams in the near future. Project developers continue to pursue this possibility since hydropower energy is a competitive clean, renewable alternative to burning fossil fuels, such as natural gas or coal. It won’t pollute the air and adds only a small amount of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. The uses of hydropower continue to expand and make it an advantageous source of energy for the United States and the entire world.

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