By now most people are familiar with the concept of green energy and some of the types of sustainable energy that exist. Solar panels are a popular choice for homeowners that want to reduce their energy costs along with their carbon footprint. Wind turbines are quickly emerging as a viable alternative to solar power for areas that don’t enjoy abundant sunshine.
What about hydroelectric power, though? Everyone knows that solar, wind, and water are the three major types of sustainable energy alternatives under development. Yet we rarely hear about how hydroelectric power is advancing.
What is hydroelectric energy? How is it harnessed and why isn’t more being done to make it as readily available to consumers as the energy produced by natural gas companies in Florida, Texas, and Oklahoma?
Although there is not a lot of public education on hydroelectric energy, power companies are developing it as a sustainable resource for providing energy. Here are a few things you should know about this clean, green energy alternative.
What is Hydroelectric Energy?
Believe it or not, many consider hydroelectric energy as one of the oldest sources of power. Although the world’s first hydroelectric power plant didn’t go into operation until 1893, people started capturing the kinetic energy produced by moving water long before that thanks to water wheels that turned machinery to grind grain into flour, just for example.
Here’s how it works. Water flows in rivers and streams. It shifts with tides in the ocean. It is subject to currents. In other words, it moves of its own accord, for all intents and purposes. This motion creates a byproduct: kinetic energy.
With proper equipment in place, companies can harness and divert this energy, providing power to homes, industry, and communities. Naturally, there must be a massive source of water in order to create sustainable energy for a large community. This is why placement of collection facilities depends entirely on available water sources.
How Can It Be Harnessed?
There are a variety of ways to collect hydroelectric energy, ranging from small to large. A homeowner with a stream running through his or her property could build a water wheel to create energy. However, this isn’t particularly convenient or cheap for the average homeowner.
More common are hydroelectric power plants on rivers that use a complex system of dams and reservoirs to drive a water turbine and generate consistent energy output. These facilities are large and expensive to build. The fact that they don’t rely on the mining and combustion of fossil fuels makes them more cost-effective overall, if you want to compare energy prices. In fact, hydroelectric power reportedly accounts for 70% of renewable power produced throughout the world, and more than 16% of overall energy produced.
Also under development are tidal power stations. Ocean tides create a rise and fall of water that produces kinetic energy. Experts are researching this process to determine the most effective and affordable ways to capture that energy.
What are the Benefits?
Arguably the greatest benefit of utilizing hydroelectric power is reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. Greater use of renewable energy resources means less mining and combustion of fossil fuels, reducing pollution and waste on two fronts.
Mining operations can produce chemical tailings and other toxic byproducts that seep into the ground and water supply. Also, burning fossil fuels produces carbon emissions that are partly to blame for the greenhouse effect and the speeding of climate change. These problems simply don’t exist when water is harnessed to create power.
In addition, water is a relatively renewable resource. Not only is there a large supply of moving water readily available, but rainfall ensures that even inland water sources won’t dry up. This, too, helps to reduce costs for energy production. Once power plants are in operation, they become relatively inexpensive to maintain.
Why isn’t Hydroelectric Energy More Popular?
Although the use of hydroelectric power is overwhelmingly positive, especially when compared to burning fossil fuels, there are potential drawbacks. The biggest concern is the resulting environmental impact. While hydroelectric energy doesn’t pollute the environment, diverting the natural course of water can impact the surrounding ecosystem, threatening local wildlife and habitat.
There are also high costs associated with investing in hydroelectric power. Although water is renewable and maintaining power plants is a relatively small expense, the initial cost to build a power plant is high. Additionally, few sites are capable of sustaining the volume of water needed to make a hydroelectric power plant viable. Advances in tidal power, however, may make this last point moot.