Hydroelectricity The Basics

Hydroelectric power is a form of clean energy. It does not cause air pollution, create chemical leftovers, or produce toxic waste. To create this electrical energy, water must fall from above to an area below. The greater the distance the water falls, the more electrical energy can be produced. The fall of water can occur naturally, such as the movement of water in a waterfall or water traveling down the slope of a mountain. Although the natural fall of water can produce electrical energy, it is not necessarily the best way to produce it. Such sources, when they occur in nature, are not always reliable. When weather is dry and little rain falls, there may not be enough water to create the energy needed.

This is where dams come in. A dam can store water, guaranteeing that there will be enough to create energy on a regular basis. Using a dam, a plant can be built in a location that has no natural fall of water. The dam and plant work together to create the electrical energy. First, the dam holds back enough water to cause the water level to reach a high point, or head. Next, the water is released so that it falls with force; this is the force of gravity at work. Finally, this water hits the blades of water wheels below. These spinning turbines use mechanical energy to turn a power generator. The generator then takes the mechanical energy and turns it into electrical energy, or electricity.

Niagara Falls, New York, boasts the site of the first hydroelectric station ever built. Completed in November 1896, the plant provided electricity for the city of Buffalo, New York, 20 miles (32.2 kilometers) away. From that date in the late 1800s to the year 1977, hydroelectric power plants grew by leaps and bounds. In 1977, hydroelectric stations were responsible for producing almost one-third of all the electrical power in the world.

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