Institute for Water Resources

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Value to the Nation

Hydropower: How it Works

The Hydrologic Cycle

Graphic depicting the water cycle. Click for full size picture
Image of the water cycle

Water moves constantly through a vast global cycle. It:

  • evaporates from the land, lakes, streams, and oceans;
  • forms clouds;
  • comes to earth again as rain or snow; and
  • flows back to the ocean.

The energy of this water cycle, which is driven by the sun, is tapped most efficiently with hydropower.

 

Generating Electricity

Diagram of a hydropower dam. Click for full size picture
Diagram of a hydropower dam

Hydropower plants capture the energy of falling water to generate electricity. A dam impounds water to form a reservoir and raises the water level to create head. Head is the vertical distance the water falls as it passes through the dam (i.e. the difference in water level between the reservoir and the river below the powerplant). The water is directed through penstocks to turbines, which drive generators to produce electric power.

Just having water in the river isn’t enough. A good hydropower site must have enough streamflow as well as enough head. For example, the Mississippi River has tremendous streamflow, but only a few of its dams are high enough to provide the head needed for efficient hydropower development. Dams in the arid West may have plenty of head, but not enough streamflow. Where the right combination of streamflow and head exists, the Corps has included powerplants at its dam.