Hydroelectric power in the United States

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The Hoover Dam when completed in 1936 was both the world's largest electric-power generating station and the world's largest concrete structure.
Hydroelectric power in the United States is located in the United States
Grand Coulee
Grand Coulee
Bath County PS
Bath County PS
Robert Moses Niagara
Robert Moses Niagara
John Day Dam
John Day Dam
Garrison Dam
Garrison Dam
Tellico Dam
Tellico Dam
Hoover Dam
Hoover Dam
Hydropower sites

Hydroelectric power stations in the United States are currently the largest renewable source of energy, but the second for nominal capacity (behind Wind power in the United States).[1] Hydroelectric power produced 35% of the total renewable electricity in the U.S. in 2015, and 6.1% of the total U.S. electricity.[2]

According to IEA the United States was the 4th largest producer of hydroelectric power in the world in 2008 after China, Canada and Brazil. Produced hydroelectricity was 282 TWh (2008). It was 8.6% of the world's total hydropower. The installed capacity was 80 GW in 2015. The amount of hydroelectric power generated is strongly affected by changes in precipitation and surface runoff.[3]

Hydroelectric stations exist in at least 34 US states. The largest concentration of hydroelectric generation in the US is in the Columbia River basin, which in 2012 was the source of 44% of the nation’s hydroelectricity.[4] Hydroelectricity projects such as Hoover Dam, Grand Coulee Dam, and the Tennessee Valley Authority have become iconic large construction projects.

Of note, however, is that California does not consider power generated from large hydroelectric facilities (facilities greater than 30 megawatts) to meet its strictest definition of "renewable", due to concerns over the environmental impact of large hydroelectric projects. As such, electricity generated from large hydroelectric facilities does not count toward California's strict Renewable Portfolio Standards. Roughly about 10 to 15 percent of California’s energy generation is from large hydroelectric generation that is not RPS-eligible.[5]


US hydropower generated 1949-2008 (blue), and hydropower as percent of total US electricity (red).
Monthly hydroelectric power generation in the US, 2008-2012. Hydroelectric power varies with seasonal stream flows.

The earliest hydroelectric power generation in the U.S. was utilized for lighting and employed the better understood direct current (DC) system to provide the electrical flow. It did not flow far however, with ten miles being the system's limit; solving electricity's transmission problems would come later and be the greatest incentive to the new hydroelectric water-power developments.[6]

The first DC powerhouse was in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where the water turbine at the Wolverine Chair factory was attached to a dynamo using a mechanical belt drive to illuminate sixteen street lights.[7][8] This occurred in 1880, the same year Thomas Edison produced the long-lasting incandescent filament light bulb, which was a safety and convenience improvement over existing candles, whale oil lamps and kerosene lamps inside buildings. In 1881, also using DC for lighting at Niagara Falls, Jacob F. Schoellkopf diverted part of the output from his waterwheel-powered flour mills to drive one of Charles Brush's improved generators to provide nighttime illumination for the tourists. Previously the attraction had been illuminated by burning bright calcium flares but arc-lights proved a better and cheaper alternative. In 1882, the world's first commercial central DC hydroelectric power plant provided power for a paper mill in Appleton, Wisconsin;[9] just months later the first investor-owned electric utility, Edison Illuminating Company, completed the first fossil fueled electrical power plant in New York City, to compete with hydroelectric power close to an area of high demand. By 1886, between 40 to 50 hydroelectric stations were operating in the United States and in Canada, and by 1888 about 200 electric companies relied on hydropower for at least part of their generation.[8]

Recognizing that the great hydroelectric potential of the Falls exceeded the local demand for electricity, a large power company was established nonetheless at the prime location for development; it awaited the prospect of an effective long-distance power transmission system. Westinghouse Electric won the competition, developing their plans around an alternating current system. The station was completed in 1895 and in 1896, electricity transmission 20 miles away to Buffalo, New York began. This event also began the rise to dominance of the AC system over Thomas Edison's direct current methods. Multiple permanent hydropower stations still exist on both the American and Canadian sides of the Falls, including the Robert Moses Niagara Power Plant, the third largest in the United States.

The need to provide rural development in the early 20th century was often coupled to the availability of electric power and led to large-scale projects like the Tennessee Valley Authority which created numerous dams and, sometimes controversially, flooded large areas. In the 1930s, the need for power in the Southwest led to the building of the largest concrete construction in the world at that time, the Hoover Dam. The Grand Coulee Dam was both a power and irrigation project of the 1930s that was expanded for military industrial reasons during World War II which also saw other dams such as the TVA's Fontana Dam built.

Dam building peaked in the 1960s and few dams were built in the 1970s. The growing awareness of environmental issues with dams saw the removal of some older and smaller dams and the installation of fish ladders at others. Instead of new dams, repowering old stations has increased the capacity of several facilities. For instance, Hoover Dam replaced its generators between 1986 and 1993. The need to alter downstream waterflow for ecological reasons (eliminating invasive species, sedimentation, etc.) has led to regulated seasonal drawdowns at some dams, changing the availability of water for power generation. Droughts and increased agricultural use of water can also lead to generation limits.

Pumped storage[edit]

Another application of hydroelectricity is Pumped-storage hydroelectricity which does not create a net gain in power but enables peak demand balancing. Water is pumped from a lower elevation source into a higher one and only released through generators when electric demand is high. In 2009 the United States had 21.5 GW of pumped storage generating capacity, accounting for 2.5% of baseload generating capacity.[10] Bath County Pumped Storage Station is the largest such facility in the world. Other stations of this type include Raccoon Mountain Pumped-Storage Plant, Bear Swamp Hydroelectric Power Station and Ludington Pumped Storage Power Plant on Lake Michigan and previously the largest in the world.

Tidal power[edit]

No significant tidal power plants exist in the United States. A project was proposed and run by the Snohomish County PUD in Washington but was ended when trouble was encountered obtaining enough funding. [11]

Hydroelectric power stations[edit]

Hydroelectric power map
Name Year of completion Total Capacity (MW)
1 Grand Coulee 1942/1980 6,809[12]
2 Bath County PSP 1985 3,003
3 Chief Joseph Dam 1958/73/79 2,620
4 Robert Moses Niagara Power Plant 1961 2,515
5 John Day Dam 1949 2,160
6 Hoover Dam 1936/1961 2,080
7 The Dalles Dam 1957 2,038

Proposed hydroelectric power stations[edit]

The Rampart Dam was a proposed 5000MW project to dam the Yukon River in Alaska for hydroelectric power. The project was never built and laws would need to be changed for this project to be built.

Potential hydroelectric power from existing dams[edit]

According to a United States Department of Energy report,[13] there exists over 12,000MW of potential hydroelectricity capacity in the US existing 80,000 unpowered dams. Harnessing the currently unpowered dams could generate 45 TWhr/yr, equivalent to 16 percent of 2008 hydroelectricity generation.

Energy generation[edit]

Hydroelectric generation in the United States[14][15]
Year Summer capacity
Electricity generation
Capacity factor Yearly growth of
generating capacity
Yearly growth of
produced energy
Portion of
renewable electricity
Portion of
total electricity
2018 79.89 291.72 0.417 0.12% -2.7% 40.9% 7.0%
2017 79.79 300.05 0.430 -0.2% 12% 43.7% 7.44%
2016 79.91 267.81 0.383 0.3% 7.50% 43.9% 6.57%
2015 79.66 249.08 0.357 0.56% -4.0% 45.77% 6.11%
2014 79.24 258.75 0.373 0.05% -3.66% 47.93% 6.32%
2013 79.22 268.57 0.387 0.64% -2.78% 51.44% 6.61%
2012 78.7 276.24 0.401 0.06% -13.50% 55.85% 6.82%
2011 78.65 319.36 0.464 -0.23% 22.74% 62.21% 7.79%
2010 78.83 260.2 0.377 0.39% -4.85% 60.88% 6.31%
2009 78.52 273.45 0.398 0.76% 7.31% 65.47% 6.92%
2008 77.93 254.83 0.373 0.05% 2.96% 66.90% 6.19%
2007 77.89 247.51 0.363 0.09% -14.43% 70.18% 5.95%
2006 77.82 289.25 0.424 0.36% 7.00% 74.97% 7.12%
2005 77.54 270.32 0.398 -0.13% 0.71% 75.57% 6.67%
2004 77.64 268.42 0.395 -1.33% -2.68% 76.36% 6.76%

See also[edit]


  1. ^ https://fueladdicts.com/2017/03/wind-overtakes-hydro-as-renewable-energy-leader-in-the-u-s/
  2. ^ United States Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration, Monthly Energy Review, 2016.
  3. ^ US Energy Information Administration (January 2010) Electric Power Annual 2008, DOE/EIA-0348(2008), p.2-3, PDF file, downloaded 24 January 2010.
  4. ^ US Energy Information Administration, “The Columbia River Basin provides more than 40% of total US hydroelectric generation”, Today in Energy, 27 June 2014.
  5. ^ http://www.energy.ca.gov/renewables/tracking_progress/documents/renewable.pdf
  6. ^ Engr. W. E. Herring, U. S. Forest Service, Applications of Water Power. Included in the Preliminary Report of the Inland Waterways Commission, submitted to Congress by Theodore Roosevelt, February 26, 1908. "The application of great water powers to the industrial wants of distant cities is less than ten years old and is still in its infancy, yet in this short space of time stations supplying a large number of cities in the United States with a combined capacity of hundreds of thousands of horsepower have been installed. To reach these industrial centers the water power is electrically transmitted, and in many cases the distance is over 100 miles. This method of utilizing water power has been made possible only by long distance transmission. Fifteen years ago 10 miles was the limit to which electrical power could be transmitted, but at the present time 150 miles is very common and in one case a line of 200 miles is in use. This fact has been the greatest incentive to such water-power developments."
  7. ^ Energy Timelines Hydropower, Department of Energy
  8. ^ a b History of Hydropower Archived 2010-01-26 at the Wayback Machine Wind and Water Power Program, Department of Energy
  9. ^ Hydroelectric Power "The first commercial hydroelectric power station was built in 1882 on the Fox River in Appleton, Wisconsin, in order to provide 12.5 kilowatts of power to light two paper mills and a residence. Paper manufacturer H. F. Rogers developed the station after seeing Thomas Edison's plans for an electricity power station in New York."
  10. ^ http://www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/servicerpt/stimulus/excel/aeostimtab_9.xls
  11. ^ "Tidal Energy Research | Power Supply | Snohomish County PUD". www.snopud.com. Retrieved 2017-12-06.
  12. ^ "Generation Records Fall at Grand Coulee Dam". U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Archived from the original on 2006-10-07. Retrieved 2006-11-18.
  13. ^ https://www.energy.gov/articles/energy-dept-report-finds-major-potential-grow-clean-sustainable-us-hydropower
  14. ^ "Electric Power Monthly". US Energy Information Administration.
  15. ^ "Electric Power Annual". US Energy Information Administration. Retrieved 2019-03-05.

External links[edit]