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Renewable energy sources: what is hydropower?


Energy generated by water (hydropower) has been used as a form of power for thousands of years. But the use of hydropower to generate electricity has been relatively recent.

As you can see from the Energy Timeline infographic the use of renewable energy such as solarwind and water power goes back thousands of years. Water power is the most widely used form of renewable energy and is one of the cheapest forms of renewable power, used in over 150 countries.

The Greeks, Romans and Chinese used hydropower – the earliest vertical water pump was developed in Greece in around 100AD. The Greeks used it for grinding grain and pumping water.

At the start of the British Industrial Revolution, water was used for a variety of inventions including Richard Arkwright’s water frame, a type of spinning machine used in the textile industry.

Hydroelectric power

The first hydroelectric power station was built at Cragside in Northumberland in 1878 by William Armstrong. It was used to power a single lamp.

Just a few years later in 1881 the massive falls at Niagra were used to generate electricity and powered the city lights close by. A year later the world’s first hydroelectric plant began operating on the Fox River in Appleton, Wisconsin, USA.

Generating electricity using water

There are several ways of using water to generate electricity – dams, pumped storage, rivers and tidal.

Most hydro projects use the power created by damming rivers to generate electricity. The power generated depends on the difference in height between the source and the water’s outflow.

The largest hydroelectric dam in the world is the Three Gorges Dam in China, which generates 22,500MW.

An English company, Gilbert Gilkes and Gordon Ltd, based in Kendal in the Lake District, has been making hydro turbines for longer than any other company in the world: it has been under the same basic ownership since 1881.

Pumped storage is generally used to generate electricity during peak demand. It involves moving large volumes of water between reservoirs at different levels. When demand is low the excess energy is used to pump the water back up to the higher reservoir. Some argue that this technology offers a solution to the problem of storage of renewable energy.

Small hydroelectric stations are often placed on rivers using the power of water from upstream. A hydropower station has been installed on the Thames in Berkshire and generates power for Windsor Castle.

Tidal power, as the name suggests, uses the tides to generate electricity. This form of hydropower is relatively new and not widely used. But it has the potential to be a predictable form of energy generation for the future. While wind and solar rely on the elements to generate electricity, tides are predictable – they happen every day come what may. However, its use depends on the tidal range and can be an expensive form of hydropower.

Global hydroelectric capacity

Currently hydropower provides 16% of the world’s electricity and is used in both developed and developing countries around the globe.

A number of countries rely on hydroelectricity for 90% of their power including Norway, Canada and Brazil and once installed hydropower plants have a lifespan of around 100 years.

Business electricity

Few businesses have the luxury of being able to make use of water power to generate electricity and lower their bills – although Derby City Council’s main council building, located next to the River Derwent, is using the electricity generated from a hydroelectric power unit to lower their electricity bills.

The easiest way to reduce your fixed business costs is to compare prices using a comparison service such as SwitchMyBusiness.com: we have already helped thousands of UK businesses save up to 70% on their energy bills. For a quick quote simply complete the form to the top right of this page or call 0800 411 8830.

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