How Does Hydroelectric Energy Work?
As fossil fuel scientists predict that we will run out of oil and gas repositories in the next century, renewable energies are becoming more and more important for sustaining our lifestyles and economy. Renewable energy sources allow us to power our homes, businesses, cars and other luxuries without using up materials that we can’t replace such as coal, oil and natural gas. Hydroelectric energy generation has been going on for hundreds of years and is one of the most well-established methods of renewable energy generation. This article discusses what hydroelectric generation is, how it works and its effectiveness, some of its uses and limitations, and gives examples of its successful implementation in the United States and around the world.
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What is Hydroelectric Energy?
Hydroelectric energy is simply electrical energy that is produced from hydropower – the force created by running water. Hydroelectric energy is usually generated by constructing a dam on a river, such that the water which flows through the dam is used to power turbines that generate electricity. The quantity of energy that can be generated depends on the volume of water available and the difference in height between the water’s source and its outflow. When the difference in height is great, the water has a long distance to fall and is rapidly accelerated due to gravity, increasing its potential energy. The energy that the water has when falling is converted into kinetic energy that powers turbines, and then finally into electricity.
Although there are more designs possible, and certainly more in use than just the hydroelectric dam, this design is the most effective because the gravitational potential of the water makes it the most energetically productive compared to systems that use river water or the movement of tides to power turbines.
Advantages of Hydroelectric Power Generation
Hydroelectric power generation has many unique advantages that make it a desirable method of energy production. Firstly, it is highly flexible. Power stations take just minutes to power up and begin filling a demand for energy. When there is a surplus of power available, it is quick and inexpensive to power down a hydroelectric dam and stop generating power until more is needed. This flexibility makes hydroelectric stations ideal for responding to changing demands for energy.
There are also significant cost savings associated with the use of hydroelectric plants. These plants are inexpensive to operate because the raw material input required is very small. Hydroelectric plants do not consume coal, gas or even water, and they can produce electricity at a cost that typically falls between three and five cents per kilowatt hour with huge generation capacities.
What is Hydroelectric Power Used for?
Hydroelectric power generation is common around the world, and is currently practiced in over 150 countries. This type of power generation already contributes about one sixth of the world’s total energy supply and 70% of all renewable energy, with significant potential for future development in many countries.
Currently, the Asia-Pacific region produces a full third of hydroelectric power worldwide, which is fed into power grids and used to power everything from government buildings to residential apartments. Some small countries have been able to meet all of their energetic needs through hydroelectric power generation – Paraguay generates 100% of its power through hydroelectric and still exports 90% of its production to Argentina and Brazil. Norway also generates approximately 99% of its power through hydroelectric energy production. Countries that harness renewable energy in this way can enjoy major economic and environmental benefits through reducing the consumption of fossil fuels.
Las Vegas, Nevada, can be considered a recent success story for renewable energy in the United States. An impressive effort spanning over ten years resulted in all of the municipal buildings of Las Vegas being powered by renewable energy sources including solar power and hydroelectric energy. Although much of Nevada is still powered by coal and oil, this step still represents an unprecedented effort to transition to renewable energy for the city of Las Vegas. In November 2016, mayors of 51 cities sent a letter to the current administration indicating their intentions to pursue similar directives with or without federal support.
Hydroelectric energy is growing in popularity and usage around the world, and is one of the most exciting up-and-coming sources of renewable energy for the future. Although the implementation of hydroelectric power generation is limited by the geography of running water, the potential for expanding this energy production method worldwide remains very promising. The International Energy Agency estimates that just 19% of the worldwide potential for hydroelectric power generation has been developed, indicating huge opportunities for us to harness this clean and renewable energy source well into the future.