How Hydroelectric Power Works

Megan Stubblefield
hydroelectric power plant

Hydroelectric power is produced through a relatively straightforward process. While hydroelectric power is widely regarded as an advanced form of energy, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), hydroelectric power plants and coal-fired power plants generate power through fundamentally similar mechanisms. However, the plants differ in terms of the energy sources they use to rotate their turbine components, which is a seemingly simple and yet transformative difference.

The Production of Hydroelectric Energy

Hydroelectric plants are somewhat dependent on certain geographical conditions. Hydroelectric dams must be constructed on rivers that change in terms of their elevation. As such, the USGS says that areas like the state of Florida will not have the ideal conditions for hydroelectric power plants. The Union of Concerned Scientists indicates that the water has to be moving fast enough and in large enough quantities for the generator to rotate in the first place, and impoundments or dams are used to create the necessary amount of force in the first place.

The Wisconsin Valley Improvement Company (WVIC) notes that most hydroelectric power plants have four sections: the dam, turbine, generator, and transmission lines. Energy is generated and converted into a usable form as a result of the functioning of the dam, turbine, and generator, and routed to customers' buildings as a result of the transmission lines.

#1 Hydroelectric Dam

Hydroelectric dam

As EDF Energy (EDFE) indicates, the hydroelectric dam is essentially positioned to obstruct the river water's natural journey. Essentially, the hydroelectric dam changes the river's flow, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, since flowing water is ultimately the source of power for hydroelectric power plants.

Water accumulates at the dam, making it possible for the requisite patterns of falling water to form. The WVIC states that the resultant reservoir could be thought of in terms of the potential energy it creates. EDFE indicates that the dam's power house contains both the generator and the turbine.

#2 Hydroelectric Turbine

Water turbine and generator

The act of opening the dam's intakes, or underwater gates, initiates the next step of the process. After the underwater gates open, the reservoir's weight will propel the water across the penstock, a channel that leads to the hydroelectric turbine.

The WVIC indicates that the force that the falling water creates will activate the turbine and make it rotate in a manner that is reminiscent of a windmill. The turbine's primary function is creating usable mechanical energy from the kinetic energy that the dam generates. From there, the water travels away from the dam and urges onward.

#3 Hydroelectric Generator

The USGS indicates that the hydroelectric turbine's shaft is connected to the generator, where the hydroelectric power itself is ultimately manufactured. The turbine makes the generator rotate and when it rotates, the mechanical energy produced by the hydroelectric turbine becomes electrical energy. EDFE indicates that the mechanical energy is transformed into electrical energy through the use of the hydroelectric generator's electromagnetic field.

#4 Transmission Lines

The WVIC indicates that the electricity produced at the hydroelectric power plants is carried on the transmission lines, where it is delivered to residential and commercial buildings. From there, the electricity produced by hydroelectric power plants will be just like the electricity produced from any other source.

Understanding Hydroelectric Power

Hydroelectric power is still mysterious to a lot of people, but the basic design and mechanisms behind hydroelectric power plants aren't as unfamiliar as some people may believe. While hydroelectric power plants cannot be constructed just anywhere, there are some locations that are uniquely suited for hydroelectric power plants. A hydroelectric power plant is an efficient system, which is appropriate for such an efficient source of energy.

How Hydroelectric Power Works