Hydroelectric power: How it works
So just how do we get electricity from water? Actually, hydroelectric and coal-fired power plants produce electricity in a similar way. In both cases a power source is used to turn a propeller-like piece called a turbine, which then turns a metal shaft in an electric generator , which is the motor that produces electricity. A coal-fired power plant uses steam to turn the turbine blades; whereas a hydroelectric plant uses falling water to turn the turbine. The results are the same.
Take a look at this diagram (courtesy of the Tennessee Valley Authority) of a hydroelectric power plant to see the details:
The theory is to build a dam on a large river that has a large drop in elevation (there are not many hydroelectric plants in Kansas or Florida). The dam stores lots of water behind it in the reservoir. Near the bottom of the dam wall there is the water intake. Gravity causes it to fall through the penstock inside the dam. At the end of the penstock there is a turbine propeller, which is turned by the moving water. The shaft from the turbine goes up into the generator, which produces the power. Power lines are connected to the generator that carry electricity to your home and mine. The water continues past the propeller through the tailrace into the river past the dam. By the way, it is not a good idea to be playing in the water right below a dam when water is released!
This diagram of a hydroelectric generator is courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
As to how this generator works, the Corps of Engineers explains it this way:
"A hydraulic turbine converts the energy of flowing water into mechanical energy. A hydroelectric generator converts this mechanical energy into electricity. The operation of a generator is based on the principles discovered by Faraday. He found that when a magnet is moved past a conductor, it causes electricity to flow. In a large generator, electromagnets are made by circulating direct current through loops of wire wound around stacks of magnetic steel laminations. These are called field poles, and are mounted on the perimeter of the rotor. The rotor is attached to the turbine shaft, and rotates at a fixed speed. When the rotor turns, it causes the field poles (the electromagnets) to move past the conductors mounted in the stator. This, in turn, causes electricity to flow and a voltage to develop at the generator output terminals."