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A brief history of hydropower

The power of falling water has been used to produce electricity for over 135 years.

Some of the earliest innovations in using water power were conceived in China during the Han Dynasty between 202 BC and 9 AD. Trip hammers powered by the vertical-set water wheel were used to pound and hull grain, break ore, and in early paper-making.

The availability of water power has long been closely associated with kick-starting economic growth. When Richard Arkwright set up Cromford Mill in England’s Derwent valley in 1771 to spin cotton and so set up one of the world’s first factory systems, hydropower was the energy source he used. 

Indeed, he was so convinced of the benefits of hydro that when he started using a steam engine six years later, he used it to pump water into the mill pond rather than to drive machinery directly. His enterprise quickly spread throughout the valley, and the massive industrial buildings that he set up still stand – in a world heritage site.

While hydropower was quickly overwhelmed in the relatively flat English landscape by coal-fired steam engines and, later, electricity generation – it was hydropower that set the country’s industrial revolution running. In many regions of the world, hydropower has played an equally major role in increasing and transforming development.


Some of the key developments in hydropower technology happened in the first half of the 19th century. In 1827, French engineer Benoit Fourneyron developed a turbine capable of producing around 6 horsepower – the earliest version of the Fourneyron reaction turbine.

In 1849, British–American engineer James Francis developed the first modern water turbine – the Francis turbine – which remains the most widely-used water turbine in the world today.

In the 1870s, American inventor Lester Allan Pelton developed the Pelton wheel, an impulse water turbine, which he patented in 1880.

Into the 20th century, Austrian professor Viktor Kaplan developed the Kaplan turbine in 1913 – a propeller-type turbine with adjustable blades.

The first generation

The world’s first hydroelectric project was used to power a single lamp in the Cragside country house in Northumberland, England, in 1878. Four years later, the first plant to serve a system of private and commercial customers was opened in Wisconsin, USA, and within a decade, hundreds of hydropower plants were in operation.

In North America, hydropower plants were installed at Grand Rapids, Michigan (1880), Ottawa, Ontario (1881), Dolgeville, New York (1881), and Niagara Falls, New York (1881). They were used to supply mills and light some local buildings.

By the turn of the 20th century the technology was spreading round the globe, with Germany producing the first three-phase hydro-electric system in 1891, and Australia launching the first publicly owned plant in the Southern Hemisphere in 1895.

In 1895, the world’s largest hydroelectric development of the time, the Edward Dean Adams Power Plant, was created at Niagara Falls.

In 1905, a hydroelectric station was built on the Xindian creek near Taipei, with an installed capacity of 500 kW. This was quickly followed by the first station in mainland China, the Shilongba plan in the Yunnan province, which was built in 1910 and put into operation in 1912. Upon completion Shilongba had an installed capacity of 480 kW – today it is still in operation with an installed capacity of 6 MW.

In the first half of the 20th century, the USA and Canada led the way in hydropower engineering. At 1,345 MW, the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River became the world’s largest hydro-electric plant in 1936, surpassed by the Grand Coulee Dam (1,974 MW at the time, 6,809 MW today) in Washington in 1942.

From the 1960s through to the 1980s, large hydropower developments were carried out in Canada, the USSR, and Latin America.

Over the last few decades, Brazil and China have become world leaders in hydropower. The Itaipu Dam, straddling Brazil and Paraguay, opened in 1984 at 12,600 MW (it has since been enlarged and uprated to 14,000 MW), and is today only eclipsed in size by the 22,500 MW China Three Gorges Dam, which opened in 2008.