Prior to the widespread availability of commercial electric power, hydropower was used for irrigation, and operation of various machines, such as watermills, textile machines, and sawmills. A trompe produces compressed air from falling water, which could then be used to power other machinery at a distance from the water.
Hydropower has been used for hundreds of years. In India, water wheels and watermills were built; in Imperial Rome, water powered mills produced flour from grain, and were also used for sawing timber and stone. The power of a wave of water released from a tank was used for extraction of metal ores in a method known as hushing. Hushing was widely used in Britain in the Medieval and later periods to extract lead and tin ores. It later evolved into hydraulic mining when used during the California gold rush.
In China and the rest of the Far East, hydraulically operated "pot wheel" pumps raised water into irrigation canals. In the 1830s, at the peak of the canal-building era, hydropower was used to transport barge traffic up and down steep hills using inclined plane railroads. Direct mechanical power transmission required that industries using hydropower had to locate near the waterfall. For example, during the last half of the 19th century, many grist mills were built at Saint Anthony Falls, utilizing the 50 foot (15 m) drop in the Mississippi River. The mills contributed to the growth of Minneapolis. Hydraulic power networks also existed, using pipes carrying pressurized liquid to transmit mechanical power from a power source, such as a pump, to end users.
Today the largest use of hydropower is for the creation of hydroelectricity, which allows low cost energy to be used at long distances from the water source.
Hydroelectric power now supplies about 715,000 MWe or 19% of world electricity (16% in 2003) . Large dams are still being designed. The world's largest is the Three Gorges Dam on the third longest river in the world, the Yangtzi River. Apart from a few countries with an abundance of hydro power, this energy source is normally applied to peak load demand, because it is readily stopped and started. It also provides a high-capacity, low-cost means of energy storage, known as "pumped storage".
Hydroelectric power can be far less expensive than electricity generated from fossil fuels or nuclear energy. Areas with abundant hydroelectric power attract industry. Environmental concerns about the effects of reservoirs may prohibit development of economic hydropower sources.
The chief advantage of hydroelectric dams is their ability to handle seasonal (as well as daily) high peak loads. When the electricity demands drop, the dam simply stores more water (which provides more flow when it releases). Some electricity generators use water dams to store excess energy (often during the night), by using the electricity to pump water up into a basin. Electricity can be generated when demand increases. In practice the utilization of stored water in river dams is sometimes complicated by demands for irrigation which may occur out of phase with peak electrical demands.
Not all hydroelectric power requires a dam; a run-of-river project only uses part of the stream flow and is a characteristic of small hydropower projects. A developing technology example is the Gorlov helical turbine.
Harnessing the tides in a bay or estuary has been achieved in France (since 1966), Canada and Russia, and could be achieved in other areas with a large tidal range. The trapped water turns turbines as it is released through the tidal barrage in either direction. A possible fault is that the system would generate electricity most efficiently in bursts every six hours (once every tide). This limits the applications of tidal energy; tidal power is highly predictable but not able to follow changing electrical demand.
Harnessing power from ocean surface wave motion might yield much more energy than tides. The feasibility of this has been investigated, particularly in Scotland in the UK. Generators either coupled to floating devices or turned by air displaced by waves in a hollow concrete structure would produce electricity. Numerous technical problems have frustrated progress.
A prototype shore based wave power generator is being constructed at Port Kembla in Australia and is expected to generate up to 500 MWh annually. The Wave Energy Converter has been constructed (as of July 2005) and initial results have exceeded expectations of energy production during times of low wave energy. Wave energy is captured by an air driven generator and converted to electricity. For countries with large coastlines and rough sea conditions, the energy of waves offers the possibility of generating electricity in utility volumes. Excess power during rough seas could be used to produce hydrogen.
The amount of energy released by lowering an object of mass by a height in a gravitational field is
Substituting for and expressing in terms of the volume of liquid moved per unit time (the rate of fluid flow ) and the density of water, we arrive at the usual form of this expression:
Some hydropower systems such as water wheels can draw power from the flow of a body of water without necessarily changing its height. In this case, the available power is the kinetic energy of the flowing water.
Over-shot water wheels can efficiently capture both types of energy.
There are some considerations in a micro-hydro system installation. The amount of water flow available on a consistent basis, since lack of rain can affect plant operation. Head, or the amount of drop between the intake and the exit. The more head, the more power that can be generated. There can be legal and regulatory issues, since most countries, cities, and states have regulations about water rights and easements.
Over the last few years, the U.S. Government has increased support for alternative power generation. Many resources such as grants, loans, and tax benefits are available for small scale hydro systems.
In poor areas, many remote communities have no electricity. Micro hydro power, with a capacity of 100 kW or less, allows communities to generate electricity1. This form of power is supported by various organizations such as the UK's Practical Action.
Micro-hydro power can be used directly as "shaft power" for many industrial applications. Alternatively, the preferred option for domestic energy supply is to generate electricity with a generator or a reversed electric motor which, while less efficient, is likely to be available locally and cheaply.