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December 2012 Policy Study, Number 12-12


Water, Water Everywhere, but Not a Drop for Power


Brief History of Hydropower Use and Development



Hydropower was first used by the Greeks over 2,000 years ago. It was commonly used for grinding grain and pumping water in the early United States.[5] The first modern water-powered electricity plants in the United States were built in the 1880s in Colorado and Utah by Lucien Nunn and George Westinghouse. They were designed and built in response to the high price of coal – which was $40 to $50 a ton at the time. The plants expanded rapidly and soon provided power to mining towns in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, and Utah.[6] About the same time, in 1886, electrical power began to be generated from Niagara Falls in New York and transmitted to the eastern states.


An important aspect of hydropower is that consumable energy is not used to generate more energy. For example, coal is burned to create electricity. The power company pays for the coal; it is consumed and transformed into another form of energy. The water used remains water, and can even be reused to generate more electricity. Additionally, the process of generating this electricity is fairly simple. The energy of the falling water is turned into mechanical energy when it goes through the hydroelectric turbine into a generator. The generator turns the mechanical energy into electricity.[7]


According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, by the early 1900s hydropower provided over 40 percent of the total electricity in the United States. By the 1940s, over 75 percent of the electricity in the western United States and one-third of all electricity nationwide was generated by hydropower. This was during a time of great economic growth and industrialization.


The most famous hydropower plant in the U.S., the Hoover Dam, generates four billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) of power each year. Started in 1930 and finished two years early, in 1935, it has been in operation for over 75 years, with several upgrades.[8] Hydroelectric power was critical to providing the energy needed to fight and win World War II, and was made quickly and cheaply available by the Bureau of Reclamation, part of the Department of the Interior.


A key feature of hydroelectric power is that it uses only renewable energy (water power) to generate energy. Water power is 100 percent renewable and is not used up in this process. Additionally, the same water can be used over and over again to generate electricity. It is not a one-time and done power source and there is no leftover, un-useable component which must be dealt with, such as leftover nuclear fuel.


Hydroelectric power is highly controllable and therefore is an important part of both baseline and peak electricity needs. If you don’t need the energy, it sits there in the water being held back by the dam. While it is waiting to be used, the reservoir created provides both environmental and recreational benefit, while costing little to maintain. When you need it, all you do is let the water flow through the turbines. This flow can be either massive or minor, depending on the need.


The ability to control the energy is unique to hydropower as a renewable energy source – unlike wind or solar power, where man has no ability to make the wind blow or the sun shine. This predictability is an important consideration which is not well publicized by the industry. Additionally, hydroelectric turbines also have a small “footprint” – and small impact once built. Hydroelectric facilities built 100 years ago are still operating. They do not require acres of land to build windmills on, or acres of rooftops to install solar panels, or acres of cleared land around their cooling towers.



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