More and more renewable energy sources are gaining importance and relevance among different generation types in every country in the world. Technological breakthroughs as well as the need to pursue a climate neutrality, mean we are gradually moving closer to an entirely renewable generation. This March, we might talk about many different renewable surces but this occasion we have decided to provide a little more knowledge about the oldest renewable source and the one in which we have our own experience: Hydroelectric energy.
The power of water has been used by different civilizations throughout the history. However, it was not until the Industrial Revolution that it began to be used for electrical energy production, thus boosting industry at the beginning of the 19th century. It was not until the shortage of coal, that energy production, using the first waterwheels (developed by the British engineer John Semeaton), would make its mark on history. That is how we began to use the kinetic energy of moving water into mechanical energy and, at the same time, into electrical energy.
We will have to move forward to 1848 when the American James B. Francis developed what has been the most widespread type of hydraulic turbine used: The Francis turbine, ideal for average jump and flow rates (between 10 and 400 meters of slope and volume from 2 to 100m3/s). These are high-efficiency turbines, guaranteed due to their low hydraulic loss. At the end of the same century, in 1879, the American carpenter and inventor Lester Allan Pelton presented the turbine that holds his name. This second turbine will be ideal for large waterfalls (more than 400 meters) and flow rates below 50 m3/s. In the 20th century, particularly in 1913, the Austrian professor Viktor Kaplan presented his turbine that today holds his name. It has a very high performance with small jumps and large water volume. Despite not being the only turbines ever developed, they do represent the main types.
Several technological developments are being followed in the present times, which boost the growth of this energy source. It was in 1880, when the first hydroelectric power station, was built in Northumberland (UK) and in 1882, the world’s first hydroelectric dam, located on the Fox River (Wisconsin, EE.UU.), designed and created by HF Rogers. There is a controversy about which is registered as the first hydroelectric power station in history, with many sources stating Rogers as the pioneer.
Since the first development mentioned above, the growth of this energy source has been very significant. In 2021, we had approximately 12.TW of hydroelectric capacity installed, worldwide, making it the renewable source with the highest weight globally (accounting aproximately 40% of installed renewable capacity). However, if we focus on the growth of this energy source in recent years, it has not been very relevant due to large installations were developed in the last century.
A In the European area in 2021 we had approximately 255 GW of installed capacity, with a total associated production of 659 TWh, makes Europe the third region in the world in generation of hydroelectric energy – very equal to South America and only below Asia – Pacific area and North and Central America.
Graph 1. Hydroelectric generation (TWh)
If we take a look at the present situation of this renewable energy source in Spain, comparing the installed power with other European countries’ capacity, we are among the top 5 countries with the highest installed capacity in 2021. This power would amount to approximately 20.43 GW (with a total associated production of 32 TWh), as we can see in the following graph:
Graph 2. Installed capacity in MW
However, if we revise at the evolution of installed hydroelectric power in the last years (2015-2022) in our country, we will see that it has barely increased. This is due to the long history of this renewable energy source: the first hydroelectric power plants were installed at the beginning of the 20th century. It would be from 1950s, when the development of this technology throve, reaching in 1990s an installed hydroelectric power of approximately 17 GW.
Likewise, it would be important to mention the special relevance of hydroelectric generation for the economic development of our country, as it is one of the technologies with the greatest contribution to GDP: 21% wind, 26% hydroelectric and 29% solar photovoltaic (data of 2020).
Currently and with the expectation for the future, we can say that technological improvements together with the digitization of processes mean that this source of renewable energy still has a long future ahead, always having on our mind our goal to decarbonization, as we mentioned in previous articles, always in an orderly manner and not harmful to the environment.
 Source: REN21 – Renewable 2022 Global Status Report.
It should be noted that there are other sources, such as the “Internation Hydropower Association” in its report “2022 Hydropower Status Report” which states that this installed power would amount to 1,36 TW.