Hydropower: Advantages and Disadvantages

The United States generated 7% of its electricity from large-scale hydropower plants in 2020. Popular renewable energy source hydroelectricity, produced by hydropower plants, harnesses the power of moving water to produce electricity.

What are the additional benefits that this technology offers besides the fact that hydroelectricity is a renewable source of energy? Do they have any drawbacks? Let’s find out why each of those inquiries had a positive response.

Pros and cons of hydroelectric energy

RenewableEnvironmental consequences
Low emissionsExpensive to build
ReliableDrought potential
SafeLimited reserves

For years, the United States has relied on hydropower to supply steady, fossil-fuel-free electricity.

Water is typically highly abundant, making it a fantastic renewable energy source, but it has significant environmental disadvantages. Even if the power source itself emits no carbon dioxide, damming a river may have an impact on the local fish population.

In general, hydropower is better than solar or wind power since water is available constantly.

How hydroelectric energy works

By turning turbines with the force of water, hydropower facilities produce energy. They run much like a coal-fired power plant does.

For instance, the steam produced when coal is burned in a coal plant powers turbines, which then produce electricity. Water is used as the energy source in hydropower systems.

The most well-known type of hydropower, usually referred to as hydroelectric power, is a sizable dam that stores water in a reservoir, as seen in the image below. Water is released from the reservoir when electricity is required, and the water then drives turbines to generate electricity.

While hydroelectric dams are a great way to produce electricity, there are some disadvantages to them, which we will detail below.  

Advantages of hydroelectric energy

1. Renewable

Because it is powered by water, which is a naturally replenishing resource, hydroelectric energy is categorized as a renewable energy source.

A hydroelectric plant generates power using water as its energy source, hence no pollution is released during the process. Hydropower is renewable because to both of these characteristics, as water naturally replenishes itself and does not produce greenhouse gas emissions.

2. Low emissions

The process of producing electricity with hydropower energy doesn’t release carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that fuels climate change on a worldwide scale.

A hydropower plant does not release pollution into the atmosphere once it is operational, unlike many of its non-renewable energy competitors, such as coal and natural gas.

3. Reliable

Hydroelectricity is a very reliable renewable energy source. 

Water flow is usually very predictable and is taken into consideration when determining where a hydropower plant is built, either on an actively flowing river or built with a dam to manage water flow.

Additionally, the output of electricity can be adjusted. If energy demand is low, water can be averted from the turbines and less energy will be produced. The opposite is true if more energy is needed – more water can flow into the plant for electricity production.

4. Safe

In general, hydropower is a highly safe method of producing electricity.

Since a hydropower plant solely uses water as fuel, no disease-causing pollution is released during energy production, and there is no possibility of oil spills or gas pipeline breaks.

Disadvantages of hydroelectric energy

1. Environmental consequences

Hydropower plants can be challenging to construct because, when a dam is employed, as in the case of the renowned Hoover Dam in Nevada, a formerly dry land area will be flooded with water and used as a reservoir. That implies that whatever ecosystem existed there will be destroyed. The river’s natural flow will also be impacted.

A non-natural water flow causes problems that range from altering fish migration patterns to less silt reaching the river’s end, which is a natural manner to build up and sustain land. Additionally, as many rivers cross many states, damming them could result in upstream nations taking more water than they should while leaving less water for nations downstream.

To ensure that the hydropower plant is as environmentally benign as possible, the potential environmental repercussions should be thoroughly addressed before choosing locations.

2. Expensive to build

Any sort of power plant construction is expensive; hydroelectric power facilities, which typically have capacities between 10MW and 30MW, can be built for as much as $580 per kilowatt (where one MW is equal to 1,000 kilowatts).

This implies that the initial expense of constructing a hydroelectric plant can be in the millions of dollars. Hydropower is more difficult to finance than solar systems, for example, despite their lowering costs.

3. Drought potential

If there is a drought and insufficient water is being pumped into the plant, the capacity to produce power may be significantly reduced.

The good news is that most droughts only disrupt the normal water cycle for a brief period of time, meaning that energy production should only be somewhat hampered.

4. Limited reservoirs

Finding a location that is suitable, has a plentiful year-round water supply, has the right amount of water, and is close enough to current electricity lines is difficult. Maintaining enough river water naturally (that is, without dams) versus damming several rivers for power requires a complex balancing act.

Hydropower vs other renewable power sources

The key benefits of hydroelectric power are that it is completely renewable, that it may produce electricity day or night, and that it is generally safe to use.

Hydropower plant construction is difficult, though, because it necessitates entirely damming a river. Since few utilities can afford it, hydropower plants are often paid for by the government.

Surprisingly, states with a high concentration of hydroelectric facilities typically have lower electricity prices. Therefore, states can lower the cost of electricity for consumers if they are ready to fund the upfront expenditures to develop hydropower plants.

In comparison to the sun, which only shines during the day, hydroelectric power is a more reliable source of renewable energy since water is constantly flowing through the turbines.

Although wind energy is also a fairly reliable source of power, wind turbines will cost more to maintain than hydroelectric dams since they are bigger and move more frequently, which makes them more prone to failure.

When it comes to biofuels, hydropower is better because it has fewer negative effects on the environment once the plant is up and going. With biofuels, you have to keep chopping down the plants or trees that will be burned as fuel. Water is abundant and does not release CO2 when used to power a hydroelectric plant, though.

Hydropower can offer a decent balance of renewable energy that generates dependable power with minimal environmental repercussions, despite the fact that no power source is perfect. Hydropower is a reasonably easy and dependable way to produce clean energy, and it is also free of greenhouse gas emissions, so it will be essential to the U.S. energy mix in the fight against climate change.

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