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Hydropower

How hydropower works:

Hydropower is using water to power machinery or make electricity. Water constantly moves through a vast global cycle, evaporating from lakes and oceans, forming clouds, precipitating as rain or snow, then flowing back down to the ocean. The energy of this water cycle, which is driven by the sun, can be tapped to produce electricity or for mechanical tasks like grinding grain. Hydropower uses a fuel—water—that is not reduced or used up in the process. Because the water cycle is an endless, constantly recharging system, hydropower is considered a renewable energy.

Water Cycle

The Water (Hydrologic) Cycle

When flowing water is captured and turned into electricity, it is called hydroelectric power or hydropower. There are several types of hydroelectric facilities; they are all powered by the kinetic energy of flowing water as it moves downstream. Turbines and generators convert the energy into electricity, which is then fed into the electrical grid to be used in homes, businesses, and by industry.

Types of hydropower plants

There are three types of hydropower facilities: impoundment, diversion, and pumped storage. Some hydropower plants use dams and some do not. The images below show both types of hydropower plants.

Many dams were built for other purposes and hydropower was added later. In the United States, there are about 80,000 dams of which only 2,400 produce power. The other dams are for recreation, stock/farm ponds, flood control, water supply, and irrigation.

Hydropower plants range in size from small systems for a home or village to large projects producing electricity for utilities. The sizes of hydropower plants are described below.

Impoundment

The most common type of hydroelectric power plant is an impoundment facility. An impoundment facility, typically a large hydropower system, uses a dam to store river water in a reservoir. Water released from the reservoir flows through a turbine, spinning it, which in turn activates a generator to produce electricity. The water may be released either to meet changing electricity needs or to maintain a constant reservoir level.

An impoundment hydropower plant dams water in a reservoir.

Diversion

A diversion, sometimes called run-of-river, facility channels a portion of a river through a canal or penstock. It may not require the use of a dam.

The Tazimina project in Alaska is an example of a diversion hydropower plant. No dam was required.

Pumped Storage

When the demand for electricity is low, a pumped storage facility stores energy by pumping water from a lower reservoir to an upper reservoir. During periods of high electrical demand, the water is released back to the lower reservoir to generate electricity.

Sizes of Hydroelectric Power Plants

Facilities range in size from large power plants that supply many consumers with electricity to small and micro plants that individuals operate for their own energy needs or to sell power to utilites.

  • Large Hydropower

    Although definitions vary, the Department of Energy defines large hydropower as facilities that have a capacity of more than 30 megawatts.

  • Small Hydropower

    Small hydropower facilities have a capacity of 100 kilowatts to 30 megawatts

  • Micro Hydropower

    A micro hydroelectric power system can produce up to 100 kilowatts.

 



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