History of Hydroelectric Power

Ancient History of Hydroelectric Power

A water turbine generator is a device that converts water power into electricity; but the power of water has not always been used to generate electricity.

Water is considered to be the earliest renewable energy resource to be exploited by man.  The water wheel, sometimes called a noria, used for collecting water from a flowing source for the purpose of irrigation was used around the 5th century BC.

Not much later in the history of hydroelectric power, around the 2nd century BC, watermill devices were invented and probably originally used for grinding grains.  These mills were usually vertical axis mills and were built and used throughout the ancient greek and roman empires.

Eventually in Europe, horizontal axis water mills were invented and used for similar purposes as their counterpart, the vertical axis.

Modern History of Hydroelectric Power

Throughout ancient history, hydroelectric power technology was slow to progress, and with the later invention of the steam engine, the growth in hydroelectric power technology was impeded even more.

It was not until 1832 that a Frenchman named Benoit Fourneyron created a very successful water turbine that was the first to use a guide vane to direct the water flow into the turbine.  This was a huge innovation because it helped Fourneyron build a turbine that could work properly while completely submerged in water.

Shortly after, James Francis invented the Francis Turbine which was an inward flow reaction turbine and is a commonly used water turbine today.

Then, in the early 20th century Victor Kaplan invented the Kaplan Turbine which helped developed the modern usage of low-head water turbine generators.

Hydroelectric Power Today

The growth of hydroelectricity today has slowed over the last few decades, especially in the United States. This is mostly because all of the best and largest locations for potential hydroelectric production have already been exploited for their water power.

In the United States, the areas with the most dramatic elevation changes harbor the highest usage of hydroelectricity.  States like Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and South Dakota lead hydroelectric production in the United States today.

States with relatively flat terrain like Florida, Ohio, or Virginia, produce almost no hydroelectricity.

Earlier in the century, hydro power produced a large portion of the United State’s electricity, but today it has dropped to supplying around 10% on the nation’s electricity.  Even though this number has decreased, hydroelectricity today is still the leading source of renewable energy.

Hydroelectric production today comes mostly from large projects, with dams that require a reservoir of water to supply the turbine generator.  Since most of the best locations for this type of hydro power in the United States are already being used, research and development for hydro power is moving towards micro-hydro systems, which require less water to operate and can supply electricity to smaller communities or individual homes.

Hydroelectricity is the most commonly used form of renewable energy today, supplying about 20% of the world’s electricity.  China, Canada, Brazil, and the United States are leaders in hydroelectric production today.  There are many unused locations in the world outside of the United States that could be efficient areas to exploit hydroelectric power.

Future of Hydroelectricity

The future of hydroelectricity seems to be heading towards smaller, micro-hydro systems and away from the large dam and reservoir systems.

Leading research analysts believe that large-scale dams are a thing of the past because many of the best locations for them are already being used, and because they can have severe negative effects on the environment.

Micro-hydro projects have less of a negative impact on the environment because they do not require a large reservoir of water to operate, they only require a small portion of a stream or river.  Micro-hydro systems can be used for individual homes or supply electricity to a smaller power grid area.

Another new technological idea looming in the future of hydroelectricity are large-scale underwater ocean projects.  The amount of energy produced from ocean waves and ocean currents is magnificent. Harnessing this power could be a huge hydroelectric resource and would potentially be less damaging to the environment than large-scale dam and reservoir systems.

With advancements in technology and knowledge, the future cost of hydroelectricity should continue to decrease.  Hopefully advancements in micro-hydro systems and ocean and wave energy systems will be an efficient and inexpensive alternative for the future of hydroelectricity.