Hydropower, water dam during daytime

Exploring examples of hydropower

The modern history of hydropower can be traced back to the 1800s, with hundreds of hydropower plants opening globally.

In recent years, the demand for renewable energy sources has been at an all-time high, making hydroelectric energy a desirable asset for any economy. In this article, we will discuss examples of hydropower and how this can look on a large scale.

What is hydropower?

Hydropower, sometimes referred to as hydroelectric energy, is a form of renewable energy generated from the movement of water. Hydropowered machines convert the kinetic energy of the water into useful work directly or electricity to be used elsewhere.

Hydropower, waterwheel that powers a flour millUsing water for work has roots far back in history, in the ancient civilisations of Rome, Greece and China. There, hydropower took the form of waterwheels that powered flour mills or water scoops that moved hammers in smitheries.

Today, hydropower is most likely to refer to facilities where the water turns a turbine to generate electricity. This can also be called hydroelectric power. These are often in the form of dams.

Examples of types of hydropower

There are three different examples of hydroelectric power stations that we see used on a large scale: impoundment, diversion, and pumped storage. All three types of facilities have their unique features.


Hydropower, the Hoover Dam pictured is an example of an impoundment dam
Impoundment dam

In an impoundment facility, a large body of water is captured behind a dam (in other words, the water is impounded). When the need arises for more power to be generated, water is allowed to pass through the turbines of the dam, making them rotate and generate electricity.

Impoundment facilities are the most commonly used hydroelectric power stations.

In recent years, there has been a more significant push for impoundment facilities to include fish steps or fishways in their design in the hope of causing less of an environmental impact with their construction.


A diversion facility, sometimes called a “run-of-river facility”, temporarily diverts a river away from its natural course. The river may be split into two: one section is left to run uninterrupted, and the kinetic energy of the other is used to generate power.

A penstock (a chamber consisting of gates, valves, and turbines) channels the split-off section of water, and then later reconnects with the original body of water.

This type of hydropower facility is typically more environmentally friendly than impoundment facilities due to reduced disruption to the river’s natural flow.


Pumped storage facilities, sometimes called PSH facilities, function as a giant battery. With PSH facilities, electricity from other sources, such as wind or nuclear power, moves water from one reservoir to another at a higher ascension. It happens during times of low energy consumption. The water is then released back into the lower reservoir, passing through the turbines, at peak times for energy consumption.

PSH facilities are generally highly economical but can cause higher levels of pollution than other hydropower options.

What makes hydropower a good option?

Hydroelectric energy is a renewable energy source, as it relies on the natural water cycle. As long as water resources are managed sustainably, it can provide a constant and reliable source of electricity.

Hydropower, water dam during daytimeMoreover, compared to other electrical generating facilities, hydropower facilities may be more affordable to both construct and operate.

Pumped storage hydropower facilities can generate power immediately to the power grid, making them a valuable backup power source during major electrical outages and disruptions.

Beyond this, hydropower facilities also offer benefits outside of electrical generation such as flood control, irrigation support, and providing clean drinking water.

It’s worth noting that while hydropower has significant advantages and will likely be an essential tool in a more sustainable future, it does have environmental and social impacts, such as altering river ecosystems. Any potential drawbacks of a hydropower project must be considered carefully by the designers.

Is hydropower used globally?

The capabilities of hydropower are utilised all around the world. According to the International Energy Agency, in 2020, hydropower supplied 17% of global electricity generation. It made it the third-largest contributor, behind coal and natural gas.

What is the largest hydropower in the world?

The Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, China 2009
The Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, China

Presently, the Three Gorges Dam in the Yangtze River holds the title for the largest hydroelectric power facility globally. Boasting more than 30 turbine generators, this dam is recognised for its unmatched productivity among hydroelectric facilities worldwide.

Image source: Wikipedia Three Gorges Dam China 2009

Is your company involved in hydropower?

At Sterling TT, we have decades of experience in the power generation industry. Whether you’re seeking heat exchangers for renewable energy applications, such as hydropower, or require efficient cooling solutions for generators in other power generation applications, get in touch with our team of experts.

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