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Hydroelectric Power

Hydroelectric power comes from water at work, water-in-motion. It can be seen as a form of solar energy, as the sun powers the hydrologic cycle which gives the earth its water. In the hydrologic cycle, atmospheric water reaches the earth’s surface as precipitation.

Some of this water evaporates, but much of it either percolates into the soil or becomes surface runoff. Water from rain and melting snow eventually reaches ponds, lakes, reservoirs, or oceans where evaporation is constantly occurring.

Moisture percolating into the soil may become ground water (subsurface water), some of which also enters water bodies through springs or underground streams. Ground water may move upward through soil during dry periods and may return to the atmosphere by evaporation.

Water vapor passes into the atmosphere by evaporation then circulates, condenses into clouds, and some returns to earth as precipitation. Thus, the water cycle is complete. Nature ensures that water is a renewable resource.

Generating Hydroelectric Power

In nature, energy cannot be created or destroyed, but its form can change. In generating electricity, no new energy is created. Actually one form of energy is converted to another form. To generate electricity, water must be in motion.

This is kinetic (moving) energy. When flowing water turns blades in a turbine, the form is changed to mechanical (machine) energy. The turbine turns the generator rotor which then converts this mechanical energy into another energy form — electricity. Since water is the initial source of energy, we call this hydroelectric power or hydropower for short.

At facilities called hydroelectric powerplants, hydropower is generated. Some powerplants are located on rivers, streams, and canals, but for a reliable water supply, dams are needed. Dams store water for later release for such purposes as irrigation, domestic and industrial use, and power generation.

The reservoir acts much like a battery, storing water to be released as needed to generate power. The dam creates a “head” or height from which water flows. A pipe (penstock) carries the water from the reservoir to the turbine.

The fast-moving water pushes the turbine blades, something like a pinwheel in the wind. The waters force on the turbine blades turns the rotor, the moving part of the electric generator. When coils of wire on the rotor sweep past the generator’s stationary coil (stator), electricity is produced.

This concept was discovered by Michael Faraday in 1831 when he found that electricity could be generated by rotating magnets within copper coils. When the water has completed its task, it flows on unchanged to serve other needs.

Transmitting Power

Once the electricity is produced, it must be delivered to where it is needed — our homes, schools, offices, factories, etc. Dams are often in remote locations and power must be transmitted over some distance to its users. Vast networks of transmission lines and facilities are used to bring electricity to us in a form we can use.

All the electricity made at a powerplant comes first through transformers which raise the voltage so it can travel long distances through powerlines. (Voltage is the pressure that forces an electric current through a wire.) At local substations, transformers reduce the voltage so electricity can be divided up and directed throughout an area.

Transformers on poles (or buried underground, in some neighborhoods) further reduce the electric power to the right voltage for appliances and use in the home. When electricity gets to our homes, we buy it by the kilowatt-hour, and a meter measures how much we use.