Hydropower has been used since ancient times to grind flour and perform other tasks. In the late 18th century hydraulic power provided the energy source needed for the start of the Industrial Revolution. In the mid-1770s, French engineer Bernard Forest de Bélidor published Architecture Hydraulique, which described vertical- and horizontal-axis hydraulic machines, and in 1771 Richard Arkwright’s combination of water power, the water frame, and continuous production played a significant part in the development of the factory system, with modern employment practices. In the 1840s the hydraulic power network was developed to generate and transmit hydro power to end users.
By the late 19th century, the electrical generator was developed and could now be coupled with hydraulics. The growing demand arising from the Industrial Revolution would drive development as well. In 1878, the world’s first hydroelectric power scheme was developed at Cragside in Northumberland, England, by William Armstrong. It was used to power a single arc lamp in his art gallery. The old Schoelkopf Power Station No. 1, US, near Niagara Falls, began to produce electricity in 1881. The first Edison hydroelectric power station, the Vulcan Street Plant, began operating September 30, 1882, in Appleton, Wisconsin, with an output of about 12.5 kilowatts. By 1886 there were 45 hydroelectric power stations in the United States and Canada; and by 1889 there were 200 in the United States alone.
The Warwick Castle water-powered generator house, used for the generation of electricity for the castle from 1894 until 1940
At the beginning of the 20th century, many small hydroelectric power stations were being constructed by commercial companies in mountains near metropolitan areas. Grenoble, France held the International Exhibition of Hydropower and Tourism, with over one million visitors. By 1920, when 40% of the power produced in the United States was hydroelectric, the Federal Power Act was enacted into law. The Act created the Federal Power Commission to regulate hydroelectric power stations on federal land and water. As the power stations became larger, their associated dams developed additional purposes, including flood control, irrigation and navigation. Federal funding became necessary for large-scale development, and federally owned corporations, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority (1933) and the Bonneville Power Administration (1937) were created. Additionally, the Bureau of Reclamation which had begun a series of western US irrigation projects in the early 20th century, was now constructing large hydroelectric projects such as the 1928 Hoover Dam. The United States Army Corps of Engineers was also involved in hydroelectric development, completing the Bonneville Dam in 1937 and being recognized by the Flood Control Act of 1936 as the premier federal flood control agency.
Hydroelectric power stations continued to become larger throughout the 20th century. Hydropower was referred to as “white coal”. Hoover Dam’s initial 1,345 MW power station was the world’s largest hydroelectric power station in 1936; it was eclipsed by the 6,809 MW Grand Coulee Dam in 1942.The Itaipu Dam opened in 1984 in South America as the largest, producing 14 GW, but was surpassed in 2008 by the Three Gorges Dam in China at 22.5 GW. Hydroelectricity would eventually supply some countries, including Norway, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Paraguay and Brazil, with over 85% of their electricity.
In 2021 the International Energy Agency (IEA) said that more efforts are needed to help limit climate change. Some countries have highly developed their hydropower potential and have very little room for growth: Switzerland produces 88% of its potential and Mexico 80%. In 2022, the IEA released a main-case forecast of 141 GW generated by hydropower over 2022-2027, which is slightly lower than deployment achieved from 2017-2022. Because environmental permitting and construction times are long, they estimate hydropower potential will remain limited, with only an additional 40 GW deemed possible in the accelerated case.
Modernization of existing infrastructure
In 2021 the IEA said that major modernisation refurbishments are required.
See also: List of conventional hydroelectric power stations
Most hydroelectric power comes from the potential energy of dammed water driving a water turbine and generator. The power extracted from the water depends on the volume and on the difference in height between the source and the water’s outflow. This height difference is called the head. A large pipe (the “penstock”) delivers water from the reservoir to the turbine.
This method produces electricity to supply high peak demands by moving water between reservoirs at different elevations. At times of low electrical demand, the excess generation capacity is used to pump water into the higher reservoir, thus providing demand side response. When the demand becomes greater, water is released back into the lower reservoir through a turbine. In 2021 pumped-storage schemes provided almost 85% of the world’s 190 GW of grid energy storage and improve the daily capacity factor of the generation system. Pumped storage is not an energy source, and appears as a negative number in listings.
Run-of-the-river hydroelectric stations are those with small or no reservoir capacity, so that only the water coming from upstream is available for generation at that moment, and any oversupply must pass unused. A constant supply of water from a lake or existing reservoir upstream is a significant advantage in choosing sites for run-of-the-river.
A tidal power station makes use of the daily rise and fall of ocean water due to tides; such sources are highly predictable, and if conditions permit construction of reservoirs, can also be dispatchable to generate power during high demand periods. Less common types of hydro schemes use water’s kinetic energy or undammed sources such as undershot water wheels. Tidal power is viable in a relatively small number of locations around the world.