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    Electricity Education - Hydroelectric

    The Early Years

    The use of hydropower is one of the oldest sources of energy. It has been dated back many thousands of years to its beginnings in which a simple paddle wheel was used to grind grain. The first industrial use of hydropower to generate electricity occurred in 1880 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, when 16 brush-arc lamps were illuminated. The first hydroelectric power plant opened in 1882. Up to this time coal had been the main fuel source for production of electricity. Even following the initial use of hydropower, the technology needed to transmit electricity over long distances was not sufficient.

    Types of Plants

    Hydroelectric power units use flowing water to spin a turbine that is connected to a generator. There are two types of hydroelectric systems that produce electricity. The falling water system uses dams. Flowing water accumulates in reservoirs that release water through a pipe and applies pressure against the turbine blades to drive the generator.

    The run-of-the-river system uses the forces created by the river's current to apply pressure to the turbine blades to produce electricity. The water is accumulated in reservoirs created by dams and is released when there is a high demand for electricity.


    Approximately 7% of all electricity production in the United States is produced by the use of hydropower. Over half of all the United States' hydroelectric capacity for electricity generation comes from Washington, California and Oregon. Washington has close to 27% of all the electricity generation. The largest hydroelectric facility in the U.S. is the Grand Coulee Dam. Niagara Falls provides New York State with a great deal of its hydropower needs.

    The Future of Hydropower

    Hydropower is viewed as an ideal renewable resource for electricity generation because it is almost free, it does not produce waste products, and it does not pollute the environment like so many other electricity-generating fuels. The only complaints that hydropower receives are those dealing with the disturbances of natural habitats, such as fish reproduction.

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