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The History of Hydropower & Hydroelectric Energy

The history of hydropower began with our quest to find a sustainable energy source. The power of water has been of interest to humans for a long time, dating back to applications using the power of the sea and rivers through to old mills. Today, the pressing need for cleaner energy sources makes the history of hydroelectric energy both intriguing and fascinating.

Solar power and wind power take a lot of the plaudits. However, flowing water surrounds us. Thus, hydroelectric is well-positioned to become a reliable and growing source of electricity generation.

Related: The history of solar energy and wind energy.

Where Did the History of Hydroelectric Energy Begin?

One of the first uses of water for power dates back to the Han Dynasty in China, between 202 BC and 9 AD. Here a vertical water wheel-powered trip hammers. Trip hammers, in turn, were used to grind grain to a pulp. History also records ancient Chinese breaking ore and using the power of water to assist in the papermaking process.

So, this takes us from the earliest use of water power to the 18th century. At this time, Richard Arkwright created Cromford mill in the Derwent Valley in England. The power of water at the mill spun cotton, creating one of the first factory systems using hydropower.

From that moment onwards, water power became a prominent energy source. It was used to grind wheat into flour and played an early and important role in the industrial revolution. The uses and applications grew throughout this period as we invented improved ways to harness flowing water energy.

In fact, we can still see many historic water turbines and mills today. Often still used for grinding flour or maize, some remain active, mainly for tourists and educational purposes.

The Evolution of Turbine Technology

Regarding hydropower, many of the most significant developments occurred in the 19th century. French engineer Benoit Fourneyron designed a turbine in 1827 that could create a power output of 6 horsepower.

Following this, James Francis, a British-American engineer, created the first water turbine we still see in use today. Even now, this water turbine remains the most widely-used turbine used to produce electrical energy.

As the 1870s arrived, an inventor from the United States created the Pelton wheel. In 1880, Lester Allan Pelton later patented his impulse water turbine. His invention increased the efficiency of electricity production through its innovative use of cupped blades.

Later, after the turn of the 20th century, Viktor Kaplan created the Kaplan Turbine. In 1913, this Austrian Professor invented a turbine that consisted of a propeller with adjustable blades.

So, as the importance and reliability of hydropower became known, the technology began to evolve at quite a pace. Even at this early stage, the history of hydroelectric energy was well underway.

Pelton Water Turbine
Picture of the inside of a Pelton Water Turbine. Note the large scoops to turn the turbine. Picture Credit: Godber, Albert Percy, 1875-1949 (Public domain)

Hydropower Projects - The Beginning

The first hydroelectric project occurred in Northumberland, England, in 1878. The electricity produced powered a single lamp. Just four years later, in Appleton, Wisconsin, American's created one of the first hydroelectric plants for wider distribution. The generated power delivered electricity to private and commercial customers. Within ten years, we could find hydroelectric power plants dotted across the USA.

In North America alone, there were hydroelectric plants located in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Ottaway, Ontario, Niagara Falls, New York, and Dolgeville, New York. These hydroelectric plants generated power for mills and local buildings.

As the turn of the century arrived, hydropower was becoming recognized on a global scale. Germany created the first three-phase hydroelectric system in 1891, continuing the evolution of the history of hydroelectric power.

A touch later, Australia launched the first publicly owned plant in the Southern Hemisphere in 1985. Following this came the development of the largest hydroelectric plant at the time. Known as the Edward Dean Adams Power Plant, located at Niagara Falls.

Hydroelectric plants were increasing at a considerable rate by 1900, with hundreds in operation. Later in 1905, a hydropower plant built on the Xindian creek could generate a then record 500kW of power.

Changes Came Thick and Fast

The 20th century was the time when larger-scale hydroelectric power generation led to more growth. Innovations were happening rapidly, and facility design was evolving.

In the 1930s, US President Franklin Roosevelt introduced new policies supporting increased hydropower development. He created the Bonneville Power Administration, a federal agency marketing electric power from the Bonneville Dam.

Subsequently, several significant projects resulted, including the Hoover and the Grand Coulee dams. At this time, hydropower created electricity generation to meet 40% of electricity needs nationally1.

Hoover Dam
The Hoover Dam, which opened in 1935, remains one of the most iconic in the world. Built on the border between Nevada and Arizona today, it is also a major tourist attraction. Over a million people visit the dam yearly with its spectacular views out over Lake Mead. The Hoover Dam has an installed capacity of 2080MW. Photo Credit: CCO Public Domain

International Development

The economy and population grew over the next 40 years following World War II. This resulted in the development of state-owned utilities built hydropower plants2. These developments were seen throughout the Soviet Union, Japan, North America, and Western Europe.

As the energy demand grew, hydropower became a feasible solution. Energy-intensive industries such as steelworks and aluminum began to draw their energy demands from hydropower.

As the 20th century started to head into its final few decades, countries such as Brazil and China began to lead the way4. In 1984, the Itaipu Dam, located between Brazil and Paraguay, had the ability to produce 12,600 MW. More recently, Itaipu upgraded to a 14,000 MW capacity.

The Three Gorges Dam in China is the only hydropower plant to produce more power, generating an impressive 22,500 MW.

As the 1980s came to an end and the 1990s arrived, growth had reduced significantly. The environmental impact of hydroelectric power and the financial implications of larger projects led to the decline. As a result,  many projects around the world came to a complete stop.

Eventually, support from financial institutions and lending disappeared in the late 1990s. The momentum of hydropower as a growing power source in the developing world stopped in its tracks.

All Eyes on Sustainability

Three Gorges Dam China
The Three Gorges Hydroelectric Dam in China is currently the world's largest. Controversially its construction displaced some 1.3 million people. This large-scale hydroelectric power project has a capacity of 22,500MW. Photo Credit: Le Grand PortageDerivative work: Rehman CC BY 2.0

As the 20th century came to a close, the impact of fossil fuels on the environment became more prominent. As a result, energy producers and the government began to reassess hydropower. In 2000, the World Commission on Dams (WCD) published an important report challenging existing practices. This resulted in a change in hydropower development.

As a result, sustainability and the environmental impact of hydropower became more of a focus, alongside hydropower's impact on communities.

Thus, in 2004, the International Hydropower Association started to work on the IHA Sustainability Guidelines. These guidelines considered the WCD strategic priorities along with the World Bank Safeguard Policies, Equator Principles, and the International Finance Corporation Performance standards. Further, the guidelines led to the creation of the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol. The protocol is used to assess projects at each phase of their lifecycle.

Appreciation for the technology was growing again, primarily due to how it was helping to combat climate change and poverty and enhance prosperity3. So, the way in which projects were planned, developed, and operated improved to meet these changing criteria.

In fact, there is research pointing to the link between economic growth, pumped storage, and hydropower. This proves that there is more to hydroelectric energy than many realize. And a great deal more developments to come.

Hydropower and a New Era

After the turn of the 21st century, throughout Asia and South America, Hydropower started to grow once again. We also saw a 65% increase in installed capacity of 500 GW from 2000 to 2017 around the world. Thus, since 2010, growth has reached a point where it was surpassing the growth witnessed during the first decade of the century.

A number of factors contributed to the increase of installed hydropower capacity, including:

  • Demand for energy in emerging economies
  • South to South investment and trade
  • Multilateral agreements and goals
  • Financial support

The Future of Hydropower

Of course, the history of hydroelectric energy has brought us to where we are today. The developments and progress have meant that hydropower is going to continue to be the world's largest type of renewable energy.

Certainly near term. This renewable energy source's potential remains vast, and much of it is still untapped. The expectation is that it will continue to grow throughout Asia and Africa5.

The figures are also impressive. The IHA, reporting in its Hydropower Status Report, cites the installed capacity had increased to 1,267GW in 2017. In the same year, the world generated 4,185 TWh in total.

Over the next two decades, significant strides in hydropower will have to be made. Further, this needs to be done to meet the below two degrees celsius commitment of the Paris Agreement. As a result, the International Energy Agency has estimated that an additional 800 GW will need to be introduced.

An Exciting Future is Ahead

Hydroelectric power and its importance in history as a reliable source of renewable energy aptly demonstrate the potential contribution to our future energy needs.

As we move away from fossil fuels, hydropower has a huge potential that must be harnessed and utilized. If we get it right, then there is no doubt that it could provide enough energy to help cope with the ever-increasing demands of the world.

1Atif Ansar, Bent Flyvbjerg, Alexander Budzier, Daniel Lunn, Should we build more large dams? The actual costs of hydropower megaproject development, Energy Policy, Volume 69, 2014, Pages 43-56, ISSN 0301-4215, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2013.10.069.
2Mustafa Balat (2006) Hydropower Systems and Hydropower Potential in the European Union Countries, Energy Sources, Part A: Recovery, Utilization, and Environmental Effects, 28:10, 965-978, DOI: 10.1080/00908310600718833
3Yüksel (2007) Development of Hydropower: A Case Study in Developing Countries, Energy Sources, Part B: Economics, Planning, and Policy, 2:2, 113-121, DOI: 10.1080/15567240600705201
4XiaoLin Chang, Xinghong Liu, Wei Zhou, Hydropower in China at present and its further development, Energy, Volume 35, Issue 11, 2010, Pages 4400-4406, ISSN 0360-5442, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.energy.2009.06.051.
5Alison Bartle, Hydropower potential and development activities, Energy Policy, Volume 30, Issue 14, 2002, Pages 1231-1239, ISSN 0301-4215, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0301-4215(02)00084-8.
Photo by Paul Gilmore on Unsplash
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