Hydropower for Kids

Most of our electricity is made by burning coal and oil, both of which release a lot of pollution in the form of greenhouse gases into our environment. If we could stop using these fossil fuels and switch to clean, environmentally safe forms of energy, we could take a big chunk out of the pollution we are creating every day and help our planet become healthy again. There are several different kinds of clean energy, called alternative energy, and each has its own benefits and drawbacks. Scientists around the world are working hard to solve all of the problems and make alternative energy sources a better choice for people to use. One of the most promising kinds of alternative energy is hydroelectricity.

How Hydropower Works

Hoover Dam located in Nevada, USA. Image by Mikano.

Hoover Dam located in Nevada, USA. Image by Mikano. License: GNU FDL

Hydroelectric power is created when the force of moving water is used to create electricity. A large dam is built to hold back large amounts of water from a flowing source, such as a river. Water is then released near the top of the dam. As this released water falls down, it spins the blades of a turbine, which then spin a generator to create electricity. Basically, a hydroelectric power plant uses the moving water as its ‘fuel’ so it doesn’t create any pollution when the electricity is generated.

People have been looking for ways to use the energy from moving water for a very long time. The ancient Egyptians used rivers to turn wheels that were used to grind grain. Today, there are giant hydroelectric power plants in operation all over the world. Some of them have been operating for over 50 years and are still making electricity for surrounding areas. Many more hydroelectric plants are being built and even more are in the planning stages to be built in coming years. The more of these plants that are in operation, the less pollution will be produced from burning fossil fuels.

The Federal government built most of the hydroelectric plants in the United States including the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington, the country’s biggest producer of hydroelectricity. The second and third largest hydroelectric dams in the United States are located in California and Oregon. There are many more, smaller power-producing dams in operation as well. In fact, many people who use hydroelectricity don’t even know where their power is made.

Benefits of Hydropower

This is a great alternative fuel source because it is lower cost and more stable than power plants that use other types of fuel. Also, since water is a renewable resource through the water cycle, there is no danger of it running out like the coal and oil supplies will. It is also a great benefit that hydroelectric power plants do not produce any pollution during their operation. Since the plant converts the motion of the water directly into electricity, it is a simple process and leaves no byproducts, or trash, during its process.

The hydroelectric power plants are very large and take a long time to build but they will last at least 50-100 years with little need for work to be done on them. Also, it does not take very many people to run a hydroelectric power plant since most of the work is automated, or done by machines. As an extra benefit, the hydroelectric dams create large lakes. Many people use these lakes for swimming, fishing, boating, and other fun activities.

Drawbacks of Hydropower

Even though hydroelectricity is a clean, renewable source of energy that can help us stop depending on fossil fuels, it does have its drawbacks. Many people worry about this type of energy because they know that building the dams disrupts the water ecosystem of the area. It also requires a large area to be cut free of trees for the lake. The flooding that is involved in creation of the lake displaces large numbers of animals and, if they live in the area, people. This has caused problems in countries with very large populations of people, including India. Also, the course of the river can change regularly, causing even more problems for local plants and animals.

Tellico Dam was delayed for more than two years over legal trouble caused by concerns over the impact to an endangered species, the Snail Darter, shown here.

Tellico Dam was delayed for more than two years over legal trouble caused by concerns over the impact to an endangered species, the Snail Darter, shown here.

Hydroelectric energy is also not available everywhere. Since it depends on large amounts of flowing water, it is great in areas where there are large rivers but there are also a lot of places in the world where this kind of energy will never be available for people to use. The hydroelectric plants have a very high cost to build, as well. Because of this, many people think hydroelectricity is not a good choice and that we should stay with cheaper ways of making electricity.

Many people are also worried about whether or not hydroelectric power plants are safe. People worry that the dams might break or that something else could happen to them that will cause heavy flooding to destroy the surrounding areas. Most dams that have been used throughout history have been completely safe but there is no way to be sure that nothing bad will happen.

Other people don’t think this is a good energy choice because there is a lot of pollution created when the dams are built. They also say that some greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane can build up in the lake water. They believe that these gases will be released into the air and are as bad as the pollution from burning fossil fuels.

Hydroelectricity is a much better energy choice than coal or oil because it is a lot cleaner for our environment and doesn’t depend on nonrenewable resources that will run out over time. It is not a perfect energy source, though, because it is not available for everyone to use and it can cause damage to delicate ecosystems. Should we use hydroelectricity? We should use it but we should also use other alternative energy sources along with it. The more of our energy that we get from clean sources, the more we can cut down on pollution and global warming on our planet.



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