microhydropower.net, your internet portal on (micro)hydropower
menu powered by Milonic
  Web microhydropower.net   
log in
You are here: Comments and remarks to Wim Jonker Klunne
Hydropower basics
Introduction to hydropower
Other documents in this series:
Civil work components
Drive systems
Electrical power
Measurement of head
Measurement of flow
further reading
Within this document:
Advantages and disadvantages
From water to Watts
Different sizes hydropower installations
Small hydropower
Energy uses

The basic principle of hydropower is that if water can be piped from a certain level to a lower level, then the resulting water pressure can be used to do work. If the water pressure is allowed to move a mechanical component then that movement involves the conversion of the potential energy of the water into mechanical energy. Hydro turbines convert water pressure into mechanical shaft power, which can be used to drive an electricity generator, a grinding mill or some other useful device.


The use of falling water as a source of energy is known for a long time. In the ancient times waterwheels were used already, but only at the beginning of the nineteenth century with the invention of the hydro turbine the use of hydropower got a new impulse.

Small-scale hydropower was the most common way of electricity generating in the early 20th century. In 1924 for example in Switzerland nearly 7000 small scale hydropower stations were in use. The improvement of distribution possibilities of electricity by means of high voltage transmission lines caused fainted interest in small scale hydropower.

Renewed interest in the technology of small scale hydropower started in China. Estimates say that between 1970 and 1985 nearly 76,000 small scale hydro stations have been built there!

Advantages and disadvantages

Hydropower is a very clean source of energy. It does not consume but only uses the water, after use it is available for other purposes (although on a lower horizontal level). The conversion of the potential energy of water into mechanical energy is a technology with a high efficiency (in most cases double that of conventional thermal power stations).

The use of hydropower can make a contribution to savings on exhaustible energy sources. Each 600 kWh of electricity generated with a hydro plant is equivalent to 1 barrel of oil (assuming an efficiency of 38 % for the conversion of oil into electricity).

The main advantages of hydropower are:

  • power is usually continuously available on demand,
  • given a reasonable head, it is a concentrated energy source,
  • the energy available is predictable,
  • no fuel and limited maintenance are required, so running costs are low (compared with diesel power) and in many cases imports are displaced to the benefit of the local economy,
  • it is a long-lasting and robust technology; systems can last for 50 years or more without major new investments.
Against these, the main shortcomings are:
  • it is a site specific technology and sites that are well suited to the harnessing of water power and are also close to a location where the power can be economically exploited are not very common,
  • there is always a maximum useful power output available from a given hydropower site, which limits the level of expansion of activities which make use of the power,
  • river flows often vary considerably with the seasons, especially where there are monsoon-type climates and this can limit the firm power output to quite a small fraction of the possible peak output,
  • lack of familiarity with the technology and how to apply it inhibits the exploitation of hydro resources in some areas.
From water to Watts

To know the power potential of water in a river it is necessary to know the flow in the river and the available head.

The flow of the river is the amount of water (in m3 or litres) which passes in a certain amount of time a cross section of the river. Flows are normally given in cubic meters per second (m3/s) or in litres per second (l/s).

Head is the vertical difference in level (in meters) the water falls down.

Components of a typical high head hydro installation.
(click for enlargement)

The theoretical power (P) available from a given head of water is in exact proportion to the head H and the flow Q.

P=Q × H × c       c = constant

The constant c is the product of the density of water and the acceleration due to gravity (g).

If P is measured in Watts, Q in m3/s and H in meters, the gross power of the flow of water is:

P=1000 × 9.8 × Q × H

This available power will be converted by the hydro turbine in mechanical power. As a turbine has an efficiency lower than 1, the generated power will be a fraction of the available gross power.

Different sizes hydropower installations

Hydropower installations can be classified as follows:

name description
Large all installations with an installed capacity of more than 1000 kW (according to some definitions more than 10,000 kW)
Small general term for installations smaller than 1000 kW (or < 10,000 kW). Also used for installations in the range between 500 and 1000 kW.
Mini capacity between 100 and 500 kW
Micro hydropower installations with a power output less than 100 kW (or less then 1000 kW)

Large scale hydropower stations are equipped with large dams and huge water storage reservoirs. In these reservoirs large amounts of water can be stored when supply of water is higher than the demand. Water from wet periods can be used in this way to supplement water supply in dry periods (or even dry years).

In the sixties and seventies large hydropower stations looked as the solution to the energy crisis in developing countries. In that period many large scale hydro schemes were built. Examples are Aswan in Egypt, Tarbela in Pakistan, Cabora Bassa in Mozambique and Kariba in Zimbabwe.

The enthusiasm for projects like those has disappeared nowadays. The extreme high sums of money involved, the long money-recovery time and the huge environmental costs are debit to this. Specially the high environmental costs are a point of great concern: losses of fertile arable land, forced migration of large groups of people and the dangers of malaria and bilharzia inherent to non-moving water.

Small hydropower

Small scale hydropower stations combine the advantages of hydropower with those of decentralised power generation, without the disadvantages of large scale installations. Small scale hydropower has hardly disadvantages: no costly distribution of energy, no huge environmental costs as with large hydro, independent from imported fuels and no need for expensive maintenance. Small scale hydropower can be used decentralised and be locally implemented and managed.

Power generated with small hydro station can be used for agro-processing, local lighting, waterpumps and small businesses.

The context of small hydropower can be described as follows:

  • decentralised, small demand for power (small industries, farms, households and rural communities),
  • distribution network with low voltages (eventually sub-regional grid),
  • owned by a individual, co-operative or community with semi-skilled workers,
  • short planning horizons and construction periods with the use of local available materials and skills,
  • depending on generated power it can have a substantial impact on local standards of living (bigger than only the supplied power),
  • as only some information is available about the potential power often not more then 10 % of the potential is used.

Energy uses

The use of power generated with small hydro stations can be divided in productive and consumptive use. An use is called productive as an activity is performed in which money (or something equivalent) is exchanged for a service. Most of those activities will take place in small businesses

All other activities are called consumptive. These include all uses of energy to upgrade standards of living. Consumptive use will therefore take place in or near the house.

Besides consumptive and productive use a distinction can be made between the use of power in a mechanical way or in the form of electricity.

All together the following table can be formed.

  mechanical electric
productive use agro-processing

timber sawing

textiles fabrication

ice cream production



mechanical uses with electricity as intermediate



fertiliser production

consumptive use - domestic lighting



radio and television


Using the energy generated with a hydro scheme in a mechanical way has some advantages over the use of electricity as intermediar. Table 2 provides a summary comparison of the advantages and disadvantages of electrical and mechanical forms of energy.

criteria electrical energy mechanical energy
impact on plant's financial viability availability of electricity frequently encourages uses of non-productive lighting forces a focus on income generating mechanical end-uses
cost of powerplant higher cost because additional equipment is required minimal costs beyond those of the turbine
sophistication relatively sophisticated equipment for rural areas which cannot generally be repaired locally easily understood technology which is frequently an extension of an indigenous technology; skills necessary for repair are more widespread
energy conversion losses if mechanical power is a primary function of the plant, 30-60 % of available shaft power is lost no losses than minor coupling losses if mechanical power is used directly
starting large loads minimum size of generation must be significantly above that of the largest single motor load turbine sized by maximum load demand
versatility can be converted readily to other forms of energy other than directly driven machinery can only be converted to thermal energy at the powerhouse
transmission can be transmitted any distance use of power restricted to powerhouse location

 Summary comparison of electrical versus mechanical energy options


Next document: Civil work components

Comments and remarks to Wim Jonker Klunne

sponsored links