How Hydropower Works
Hydropower is using water to power machinery or make electricity. Water constantly moves through a vast global cycle, evaporating from lakes and oceans, forming clouds, precipitating as rain or snow, then flowing back down to the ocean. The energy of this water cycle, which is driven by the sun, can be tapped to produce electricity or for mechanical tasks like grinding grain. Hydropower uses a fuel—water—that is not reduced or used up in the process. Because the water cycle is an endless, constantly recharging system, hydropower is considered a renewable energy.
When flowing water is captured and turned into electricity, it is called hydroelectric power or hydropower. There are several types of hydroelectric facilities; they are all powered by the kinetic energy of flowing water as it moves downstream. Turbines and generators convert the energy into electricity, which is then fed into the electrical grid to be used in homes, businesses, and by industry.
Types of Hydropower Plants
There are three types of hydropower facilities: impoundment, diversion, and pumped storage. Some hydropower plants use dams and some do not. The images below show both types of hydropower plants.
Many dams were built for other purposes and hydropower was added later. In the United States, there are about 80,000 dams of which only 2,400 produce power. The other dams are for recreation, stock/farm ponds, flood control, water supply, and irrigation.
Hydropower plants range in size from small systems for a home or village to large projects producing electricity for utilities. The sizes of hydropower plants are described below.
The most common type of hydroelectric power plant is an impoundment facility. An impoundment facility, typically a large hydropower system, uses a dam to store river water in a reservoir. Water released from the reservoir flows through a turbine, spinning it, which in turn activates a generator to produce electricity. The water may be released either to meet changing electricity needs or to maintain a constant reservoir level.
A diversion, sometimes called run-of-river, facility channels a portion of a river through a canal or penstock. It may not require the use of a dam.
When the demand for electricity is low, a pumped storage facility stores energy by pumping water from a lower reservoir to an upper reservoir. During periods of high electrical demand, the water is released back to the lower reservoir to generate electricity.
Facilities range in size from large power plants that supply many consumers with electricity to small and micro plants that individuals operate for their own energy needs or to sell power to utilities.
Although definitions vary, DOE defines large hydropower as facilities that have a capacity of more than 30 megawatts.
Although definitions vary, DOE defines small hydropower as facilities that have a capacity of 100 kilowatts to 30 megawatts.
A micro hydropower plant has a capacity of up to 100 kilowatts. A small or micro-hydroelectric power system can produce enough electricity for a home, farm, ranch, or village.
Types of Hydropower Turbines
There are two main types of hydro turbines: impulse and reaction. The type of hydropower turbine selected for a project is based on the height of standing water—referred to as "head"—and the flow, or volume of water, at the site. Other deciding factors include how deep the turbine must be set, efficiency, and cost.
Terms used on this page are defined in the glossary.
The impulse turbine generally uses the velocity of the water to move the runner and discharges to atmospheric pressure. The water stream hits each bucket on the runner. There is no suction on the down side of the turbine, and the water flows out the bottom of the turbine housing after hitting the runner. An impulse turbine is generally suitable for high head, low flow applications.
A pelton wheel has one or more free jets discharging water into an aerated space and impinging on the buckets of a runner. Draft tubes are not required for impulse turbine since the runner must be located above the maximum tailwater to permit operation at atmospheric pressure.
A Turgo Wheel is a variation on the Pelton and is made exclusively by Gilkes in England. The Turgo runner is a cast wheel whose shape generally resembles a fan blade that is closed on the outer edges. The water stream is applied on one side, goes across the blades and exits on the other side.
A cross-flow turbine is drum-shaped and uses an elongated, rectangular-section nozzle directed against curved vanes on a cylindrically shaped runner. It resembles a "squirrel cage" blower. The cross-flow turbine allows the water to flow through the blades twice. The first pass is when the water flows from the outside of the blades to the inside; the second pass is from the inside back out. A guide vane at the entrance to the turbine directs the flow to a limited portion of the runner. The cross-flow was developed to accommodate larger water flows and lower heads than the Pelton.
A reaction turbine develops power from the combined action of pressure and moving water. The runner is placed directly in the water stream flowing over the blades rather than striking each individually. Reaction turbines are generally used for sites with lower head and higher flows than compared with the impulse turbines.
A propeller turbine generally has a runner with three to six blades in which the water contacts all of the blades constantly. Picture a boat propeller running in a pipe. Through the pipe, the pressure is constant; if it isn't, the runner would be out of balance. The pitch of the blades may be fixed or adjustable. The major components besides the runner are a scroll case, wicket gates, and a draft tube. There are several different types of propeller turbines:
The turbine and generator are a sealed unit placed directly in the water stream.
The generator is attached directly to the perimeter of the turbine.
The penstock bends just before or after the runner, allowing a straight line connection to the generator.
Both the blades and the wicket gates are adjustable, allowing for a wider range of operation.
A Francis turbine has a runner with fixed buckets (vanes), usually nine or more. Water is introduced just above the runner and all around it and then falls through, causing it to spin. Besides the runner, the other major components are the scroll case, wicket gates, and draft tube.
Kinetic energy turbines, also called free-flow turbines, generate electricity from the kinetic energy present in flowing water rather than the potential energy from the head. The systems may operate in rivers, man-made channels, tidal waters, or ocean currents. Kinetic systems utilize the water stream's natural pathway. They do not require the diversion of water through manmade channels, riverbeds, or pipes, although they might have applications in such conduits. Kinetic systems do not require large civil works; however, they can use existing structures such as bridges, tailraces and channels.