Cromford’s eighteenth century water wheel in England and China’s impressive Three Gorges Dam are subtly connected. Even though they hardly look similar, they’re in fact two crafts of the same human skill: harnessing energy from earth’s blue gold, water.
First hydraulic wheels
A full century before the birth of Jesus, in Egypt’s Alexandria, rivers were moving hydraulic wheels that in turn propelled the millstones. The hydraulic wheels served as energy amplifies, proving a powerful yet simple technology harnessing moving water and transforming it in energy.
One energy, many uses
By the ninth century, water’s motive power helps mankind in fulfilling many different tasks: tanning hides and skins, grinding malts for beer, milling olives, sugar and pigments for dying.
The era of mills
Medieval times saw two kinds of mills dotting its scenery. The “retricine” mill is a horizontally-mounted wheel harnessing the flow of moving water, while the “vitruvian” mill is vertically-mounted.
Water meets industry
England’s Cromford Mill was the world’s first industrial water-powered cotton-spinning mill, representing a decisive first step in the expansion of production and commerce in the British Empire.
The Francis turbine
The next evolutionary step was moving from the wheel to the hydraulic turbine, transforming water’s kinetic energy in mechanical energy which is in turn transformed in electricity. This invention was the brainchild of British engineer James B. Francis. His namesake turbine was the most used of its kind in hydroelectric power plants.
The dynamo sees the light
Italian engineer Antonio Pacinotti invents the dynamo, a device transforming mechanical energy in direct current. He was unable to patent his invention and in 1869, Zenobe Gramme patented a machinery of which Pacinotti’s device was a fundamental component.
Edison’s groundbreaking invention
At the International Electricity Exposition in Paris, American Thomas Edison showcased its “Edison system”, a device engineered to generate centralized electricity for lighting purposes in direct current.
The first hydroelectric power plant
The world’s first hydroelectric power plant went online in the American town of Appleton, Wisconsin.
Lights at La Scala
Giuseppe Colombo, engineer and trailblazer of industrial progress, opened continental Europe’s first power plant using the “Edison System”. Its power lighted up the iconic La Scala Opera House, to that day illuminated by gas lamps which posed a frequent hazard in closed environments.
Italian engineer Galileo Ferraris introduced the first engine and Alternate Current engine ever devised for industrial use. Alternate current proved to be the most reliable solution, allowing to reduce energy loss over long distance transmission.
Water lights up Rome
The Acquoria hydroelectric power station went online. Located in Tivoli, a small city in the outskirts of Rome, it delivered energy to the Eternal City via the world’s first Alternate Current power grid.
A new idea springs into action: the Kaplan turbine
Austrian professor Viktor Kaplan is the inventor of his namesake turbine. The turbine was engineered to harness small water jumps to the fullest, even as little as a few dozen meters, while also coping with substantial water flows.
An American record
The world’s biggest hydroelectric power station comes online in the United States. The Hoover Dam is a majestic piece of engineering that towers over the Colorado river, boasting an installed capacity of 1345 MW later upgraded to 2080 MW. Its title was later taken away a few years later by the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia river.
Italy, the European leader in hydro
Construction works went underway on the Belluno hydroelectric power plant, becoming Europe’s biggest once fully operational.
Water all the way
Hydroelectric power reaches a 65% share of total installed capacity.
The Chinese giant
Work is completed on the Three Gorges Dam over China’s Yangtze river. With a capacity of 22.5 GW, generating 98.8 TWh yearly, this mammoth project is by far the world’s most powerful power plant.
The Queen of renewables
Today, hydroelectric energy represents a 90% share of global renewable energy generation, contributing to 17% of the world’s total installed capacity.
Long-lasting and efficient energy
Flexibility and efficiency
Output from hydro power plants can be quickly adapted to suit new supply-based needs, while its kw/hour costs are very competitive.
The service life of an hydroelectric power plant can potentially span a century: ample time to generate sustainable energy aplenty.
Hydroelectric power plants are carbon neutral, representing a great advantage for both the environment and humankind’s wellbeing.