Hydroelectric Power: The Hidden Potential Of Our Rivers And Streams

Our planet is in the midst of an energy transition. As we move away from fossil fuels and towards cleaner, more sustainable forms of energy, hydroelectric power is emerging as a key player in our energy mix. Hydroelectric power, which harnesses the power of flowing water to generate electricity, has been around for over a century, and it’s one of the oldest and most reliable forms of renewable energy. But what many people don’t know is that hydroelectric power has the potential to be a much larger piece of our energy puzzle than it currently is. In this article, we’ll explore the hidden potential of our rivers and streams when it comes to hydroelectric power.

The Basics Of Hydroelectric Power

Before we dive into the potential of hydroelectric power, let’s first take a look at how it works. At its most basic level, hydroelectric power involves using the energy of falling water to turn a turbine, which generates electricity. This is made possible by a dam, which holds back the water, allowing it to build up enough potential energy to turn the turbine. As the water passes through the turbine, it rotates a shaft, which is connected to a generator. This generator converts the mechanical energy of the rotating shaft into electrical energy, which can then be distributed to homes and businesses.

The Importance Of Hydropower

Hydroelectric power is already a significant component of our energy mix. In the United States, hydroelectric power makes up about 7% of total electricity generation, and globally it accounts for about 16% of total electricity generation. But why is it so important? For one, hydroelectric power is renewable. As long as water keeps flowing, we can keep generating power. Additionally, hydropower is clean. Unlike fossil fuels, hydroelectric power doesn’t produce harmful air pollutants or greenhouse gas emissions. Hydroelectric power is also reliable. Since water can be stored and released as needed, hydroelectric plants can quickly respond to changes in demand for electricity.

The Hidden Potential Of Hydroelectric Power

Despite its many benefits, hydroelectric power has yet to reach its full potential. One reason is that not all rivers and streams are suitable for hydropower. Certain conditions have to be met, such as consistent flow rates and gradients that are steep enough to generate power. But even with these limitations, there are still many untapped opportunities for hydroelectric power. One study estimated that if all of the feasible small hydropower projects in the US were developed, they could generate enough electricity to power about 8 million homes.

Small Hydropower

One area of hydroelectric power that has yet to be fully explored is small hydropower. Small hydropower refers to projects that generate less than 10 megawatts (MW) of electricity. These projects can be developed on streams and rivers that are too small for large-scale hydropower, but still have the potential to generate significant amounts of electricity. Small hydropower can also be more environmentally friendly than large-scale hydropower, since they typically have a smaller footprint and don’t require the construction of large dams.

Pumped-Storage Hydropower

Another area of hydropower that has potential is pumped-storage hydropower. This type of hydropower involves using excess electricity, such as that generated by solar or wind power, to pump water from a lower reservoir to an upper reservoir. When electricity is needed again, the water is released from the upper reservoir, generating electricity as it flows down to the lower reservoir. Pumped-storage hydropower can help to balance out the intermittent nature of solar and wind power, providing a way to store excess energy for use when it’s needed.

The Challenges Of Hydropower

While there are many opportunities for hydroelectric power, there are also many challenges that must be overcome. One of the biggest challenges is environmental impact. Large dams can have significant effects on ecosystems and natural habitats, and they can also displace communities that live near the river. Additionally, dam failures can be catastrophic, causing widespread damage and loss of life. Small hydropower projects can be more environmentally friendly, but they can still have impacts on local ecosystems and fish populations.


Hydroelectric power has been around for over a century, but it still has a lot of untapped potential. Small hydropower projects and pumped-storage hydropower can help to expand the use of hydroelectric power, providing a clean and reliable source of electricity. However, the environmental impacts of these projects must be carefully evaluated, and we must ensure that we are not causing more harm than good. With careful planning and management, hydroelectric power can play an important role in our energy transition, helping us to achieve a more sustainable future.

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