Hydropower Program

The History of Hydropower Development in the United States

By using water for power generation, people have worked with nature to achieve a better lifestyle. The mechanical power of falling water is an age-old tool. It was used by the Greeks to turn water wheels for grinding wheat into flour, more than 2,000 years ago. In the 1700's mechanical hydropower was used extensively for milling and pumping. By the early 1900's, hydroelectric power accounted for more than 40 percent of the United States' supply of electricity. In the 1940's hydropower provided about 75 percent of all the electricity consumed in the West and Pacific Northwest, and about one third of the total United States' electrical energy. With the increase in development of other forms of electric power generation, hydropower's percentage has slowly declined and today provides about one tenth of the United States' electricity.

Niagra Falls was the first of the American hydroelectric power sites developed for major generation and is still a source of electric power today. The early hydroelectric plants were direct current stations built to power arc and incandescent lighting during the period from about 1880 to 1895. When the electric motor came into being the demand for new electrical energy started its upward spiral. The years 1895 through 1915 saw rapid changes occur in hydroelectric design and a wide variety of plant styles built. Hydroelectric plant design became fairly well standardized after World War I with most development in the 1920's and 1930's being related to thermal plants and transmission and distribution

The Bureau of Reclamation became involved in hydropower production because of its commitment to water resource management in the arid West. The waterfalls of the Reclamation dams make them significant producers of electricity. Hydroelectric power generation has long been an integral part of Reclamation's operations while it is actually a byproduct of water development. In the early days, newly created projects lacked many of the modern conveniences, one of these being electrical power. This made it desirable to take advantage of the potential power source in water.

Powerplants were installed at the dam sites to carry on construction camp activities. Hydropower was put to work lifting, moving, and processing materials to build the dams and dig canals. Powerplants ran sawmills, concrete plants, cableways, giant shovels, and draglines. Night operations were possible because of the lights fed by hydroelectric power. When construction was complete, hydropower drove pumps that provided drainage of conveyed water to lands at higher elevations than could be served by gravity-flow canals.

Surplus power was sold to existing power distribution systems in the area. Local industries, towns and farm consumers benefitted from the low-cost electricity. Much of the construction and operating costs of dams and related facilities were paid for by this sale of surplus power, rather than by the water users alone. This proved to be a great savings to irrigators struggling to survive in the West.

Reclamation's first hydroelectric powerplant was built to aid construction of the Theodore Roosevelt Dam on the Salt River about 75 miles northeast of Phoenix, Arizona. Small hydroelectric generators, installed prior to construction, provided energy for construction and for equipment to lift stone blocks into place. Surplus power was sold to the community, and citizens were quick to support expansion of the dam's hydroelectric capacity. A 4,500 kilowatt powerplant was constructed and, in 1909, five generators were in operation, supplying power for pumping irrigation water and furnishing electricity to the Phoenix area.

Power development, a byproduct of water development, had a tremendous impact on the area's economy and living conditions. Power was sold to farms, cities, and industries. Wells pumped by electricity meant more irrigated land for agriculture, and pumping also lower water tables in those areas with water logging and alkaline soil problems. By 1916, nine pumping plants were in operation irrigating more than 10,000 acres. In addition Reclamation supplied all of the residential and commercial power needs of Phoenix. Cheap hydropower, in abundant supply, attracted industrial development as well. A private company was able to build a large smelter and mill nearby to process low-grade copper ore, using hydroelectric power.

The Theodore Roosevelt Powerplant was one of the first large power facilities constructed by the Federal Government. Its capacity has since been increased form 4,500 kW to over 36,000 kW.

Power, first developed for building Theodore Roosevelt Dam and for pumping irrigation water, also helped pay for construction, enhanced the lives of farmers and city dwellers, and attracted new industry to the Phoenix area.

During World War I, Reclamation projects continued to provide water and hydroelectric power to Western farms and ranches. This helped to feed and clothe the Nation, and the power revenues were a welcome source of income to the Federal Government.

The Depression of the 1930's, coupled with widespread floods and drought in the West, spurred the building of great multipurpose Reclamation projects such as Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River, Hoover Dam on the lower Colorado River, and the Central Valley Project in California. This was the "big dam" period, and the low-cost hydropower produced by those dams had a profound effect on urban and industrial growth.

With the advent of World War II the Nation's need for hydroelectric power soared. At the outbreak of the war, the Axis Nations had three times more available power than the United States. The demand for power was identified in this 1942 statement on " The War Program of the Department of the Interior:"

"The war budget of $56 billion will require 154 billion kWh of electric energy annually for the manufacture of airplanes, tanks, guns, warships, and fighting material, and to equip and serve the men of the Army, Navy and Marine Corps."

Each dollar spent for wartime industry required about 2-3/4 kWh of electric power. The demand exceeded the total production capacity of all existing electric utilities in the United States. To produce enough aluminum to meet the President's goal of 60,000 new planes in 1942 alone required 8.5 billion kWh of electric power.

Hydropower provided one of the best ways for rapidly expanding the country's energy output. Addition of more powerplant units at dams throughout the West made it possible to expand energy production, and construction pushed ahead to speed up the availability of power. In 1941, Reclamation produced more than 5 billion kWh, resulting in a 25 percent increase in aluminum production. By 1944 Reclamation quadrupled its hydroelectric power output.

From 1940 through 1945, Reclamation powerplants produced 47 billion kWh of electricity, enough to make:

69,000 airplanes 79,000 machine guns
5,000 ships 7,000,000 aircraft bombs, and
5,000 tanks 31,000,000 shells

During the war, Reclamation was the major producer of power in the West where needed resources were located. The supply of low-cost electricity attracted large defense industries to the area. Shipyards, steel mills, chemical companies, oil refineries, and automotive and aircraft factories all needed vast amounts of electrical power. Atomic energy installations were located at Hanford, Washington, to make use of hydropower from Grand Coulee.

While power output of Reclamation projects energized the war industry, it was also used to process food, light military posts, and meet needs of the civilian population in many areas.

With the end of the war, powerplants were put to use in rapidly developing peacetime industries. Hydropower has been vital for the West's industries which use mineral resources or farm products as raw materials. Many industries have depended wholly on Federal hydropower. In fact, periodic low flows on the Columbia River have disrupted manufacturing in that region.

Farming was tremendously important to America during the war and continues to be today. Reclamation delivers 10 trillion gallons of water delivered to more than 31 million people each year and provides 1 out of 5 Western farmers (140,000) with irrigation water for 10 million farmland acres that produce 60% of the nation's vegetables and 25% of the its fruits and nuts

Hydropower directly benefits rural areas in three ways:

It produces revenue which contributes toward repayment of irrigation facilities, easing the water user's financial burden.

It makes irrigation of lands at higher elevations possible through pumping facilities.

It makes power available for use on the farm for domestic purposes.

Reclamation is second only to the Corps of Engineers in the operation of hydroelectric powerplants in the United States. Reclamation uses some of the power it produces to run its facilities, such as pumping plants. Excess hydropower is sold first to preferred customers, such as rural electric power co-ops, public utility districts, municipalities, and state and Federal agencies. Any remaining power may be sold to private electric utilities. Reclamation generates enough hydropower to meet the needs of millions of people, and power revenues exceed $900 million a year. Power revenues are returned to the Federal Treasury to repay the cost of constructing, operating, and maintaining projects.

An excellent book detailing the history of hydroelectricity is the two volume set of "Hydroelectric Development in the United States 1880 - 1940" prepared for the Task Force on Cultural Resource Management, Edison Electric Institute, Duncan Hay, New York State Museum, 1991. This book details American hydroelectric development from the first use of hydroelectric power around 1880 up to 1940. The following time line includes data from the above referenced book highlighting a chronology of American hydroelectric development.

1879 First commercial arc lighting system installed, Cleveland, Ohio.
1879 Thomas Edison demonstrates incandescent lamp, Menlo Park, New Jersey.
1880 Grand Rapids Michigan: Brush arc light dynamo driven by water turbine used to provide theater and storefront illumination.
1881 Niagra Falls, New York; Brush dynamo, connected to turbine in Quigley's flour mill lights city street lamps.
1882 Appleton, Wisconsin; Vulcan Street Plant, first hydroelectric station to use Edison system.
1883 Edison introduces "three-wire" transmission system.
1886 Westinghouse Electric Company organized.
1886 Frank Sprague builds first American transformer and demonstrates use of step up and step down transformers for long distance AC power transmission in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.
1886 40 to 50 water powered electric plants reported on line or under construction in the U.S. and Canada.
1887 San Bernadino, California; High Grove Station, first hydroelectric plant in the West.
1888 Rotating field AC alternator invented.
1889 American Electrical Directory lists 200 electric companies that use waterpower for some or all of their generation.
1889 Oregon City Oregon, Willamette Falls station, first AC hydroelectric plant. Single phase power transmitted 13 miles to Portland at 4,000 volts, stepped down to 50 volts for distribution.
1891 Ames, Colorado; Westinghouse alternator driven by Pelton waterwheel, 320 foot head. Single phase, 3000 volt, 133 cycle power transmitted 2.6 miles to drive ore stamps at Gold King Mine.
1891 Frankfort on Main, Germany; First three-phase hydroelectric system used for 175 km, 25,000 volt demonstration line from plant at Lauffen.
1891 60 cycle AC system introduced in U.S.
1892 Bodie, California; 12.5 mile, 2,500 AC line carried power from hydroelectric plant to ore mill of Standard Consolidated Mining Co.
1892 San Antonio Creek, California; Single phase 120 kW plant, power carried to Pomona over 13 mile 5,000 volt line. Voltage increased to 10,000 and line extended 42 miles to San Bernadino within a year. First use of step up and step down transformers in hydroelectric project.
1892 General Electric Company formed by the merger of Thomson-Houston and Edison General Electric.
1893 Mill Creek, California; First American three-phase hydroelectric plant. Power carried 8 miles to Redlands on 2,400 volt line.
1893 Westinghouse demonstrates "universal system" of generation and distribution at Chicago exposition.
1893 Folsom, California; Three-phase, 60 cycle, 11,000 volt alternators installed at plant on American River. Power transmitted 20 miles to Sacramento.
1889-93 Austin, Texas; First dam designed specifically for hydroelectric power built across Colorado River.
1895 Niagra Falls, New York; 5,000 horsepower, 60 cycle, three-phase generators go into operation.
1897 Mechanicville, New York; Hudson River Power Transmission Company completes 5,250 kW, 38 cycle plant and 17 mile line to Schenectady.
1897 Minneapolis, Minnesota; Lower Dam hydroelectric plant completed at St. Anthony's Falls on the Mississippi.
1898 Los Angeles, California; 83 mile line built from Santa Anna River No. 1 hydroelectric plant.
1899 Nevada City, California; power from Nevada City, Yuba, and Colgate hydroelectric plants sold to Sacramento Power & Light Co. over 62 mile line to Folsom.
1899 Kalamazoo, Michigan; 24-mile, 22,000 volt line built from Trowbridge Dam hydroelectric plant.
1901 Oakland, California; 142 mile line built from Colgate hydroelectric plant by Bay Counties Power Company.
1901 First Federal Water Power Act
1901 Trenton Falls, New York; First installation of high head reaction turbines designed and built in the U. S.
1889-1902 Massena, New York; Dam and powerhouse built at confluence of St. Lawrence & Grasse Rivers. Power primarily used for smelting by Aluminum Corporation of America (ALCOA)
1902 Reclamation Act of 1902 establishes the Reclamation Service which later becomes the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Included in the act is the authority to develop the hydropower potential of Reclamation projects.
1897-1903 Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan; Michigan, Lake Superior Power Company Plant, 80 horizontal shaft units delivered 40,000 horsepower.
1905 Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan; First low head plant with direct connected vertical shaft turbines and generators.
1906 Ilchester, Maryland; Fully submerged hydroelectric plant built inside Ambursen Dam.
1906 Town Sites and Power Development Act - Authorized Secretary of the Interior to lease surplus power or power privileges.
1907 Hauser Lake, Montana: Short lived steel dam built across Missouri River by Wisconsin Bridge & Iron Co. for Helena Power & Transmission Co.
1910 Federal Water Power Act revised.
1910 Big Creek, California; Construction begins on a hydroelectric system that would eventually include eight powerhouses, over a 6,200 foot fall, rated at 685,000 kW.
1905-1911 Roosevelt Dam, Salt River, Arizona; Largest, and last, masonry dam ever built by U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Mixed use irrigation/hydroelectric project.
1911 R. D. Johnson invents differential surge tank and Johnson hydrostatic penstock valve.
1912 Holtwood, Pennsylvania; First commercial installation of Kingsbury vertical thrust bearing in hydroelectric plant.
1910-1913 Keokuk, Iowa; Mississippi River Power Transmission Plant.
1913 Tallulah Falls, Georgia; Highest head hydroelectric plant in the East.
1913 Nolenchucky, Tennessee; First use of W. M. White's plate steel spiral turbine case.
1914 S. J. Zowski develops high specific speed reaction (Francis) turbine runner for low head applications.
1914 Argo, Michigan; Streamline draft tube introduced.
1916 First commercial installation of fixed-blade propeller turbine designed by Forrest Nagler.
1917 Hydracone draft tube patented by W. M. White.
1917 National Defense Act authorizes construction of government dam and powerplant at Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
1919 Viktor Kaplan demonstrates adjustable blade propeller turbine runner at Podebrady, Czechoslovakia.
1920 Federal Power Act establishes Federal Power Commission with authority to issue licenses for hydroelectric development on public lands.
1922 First hydroelectric plant built specifically for peaking power.
1922 Organization representing the power industry and manufacturers met to standardize voltages
1924 First World Power Conference, London.
1929 Del Rio, Texas; First Kaplan turbines installed in the U.S. -- Lake Walk plant.
1929 Rocky River Plant, New Milford, Connecticut; First major pumped storage hydroelectric plant.
1930 Federal Power Act revised, independent full-time Federal Power Commission established.
1931 Construction begins, Boulder (later Hoover) Dam, Colorado River, Arizona-Nevada.
1933 Tennessee Valley Authority Act.
1933 Construction begins, Grand Coulee Dam, Columbia River, Washington.
1935 Federal Power Commission authority extended to all hydroelectric projects built by utilities engaged in interstate commerce.
1933-1937 Bonneville Dam, Columbia River, Washington/Oregon.
1937 First power generated at Hoover Dam, Arizona/Nevada.
1937 Bonneville Project Act - Created BPA (Bonneville Power Administration)
1940 Over 1500 hydroelectric facilities produce about one third of the United States' electrical energy.
1941 First power generated at Grand Coulee Powerplant, Washington - Presently the third largest hydroelectric plant in the world at 6,800 megawatts installed capacity.
1944 First power generated at Shasta Dam in California.
1964 First power generated at Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona.
1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act - Protects rivers in their natural state by excluding them from consideration as hydroelectric power sites.
1969 National Environmental Policy Act - Ensures that environmental considerations are systematically taken into account by Federal agencies.
1974 Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act - Ensures equal consideration of fish and wildlife protection in the activities of Federal agencies.
1978 Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act - Encourages small-scale power production facilities; exempted certain hydroelectric projects from Federal licensing requirements, and required utilities to purchase - at "avoided cost" rates - power from small production facilities that use renewable resources
1979 First power generated at New Melones Dam in California. Built by the Corps of Engineers and turned over to the Bureau of Reclamation, this is the last of the larger powerplants (over 30 megawatts) in the Bureau of Reclamation's power program.
1980 Energy Security Act - Exempted small-scale hydroelectric power from some licensing requirements.
1980 Crude Oil Windfall Profit Tax - Provided tax incentives to small-scale hydropower producers.
1983 First power generated at Itaipú powerplant, Brazil/Paraguay - Presently the largest hydroelectric powerplant in the world at 12,600 megawatts installed capacity.
1986 Electric Consumers Protection Act - Amended the Federal Power Act to remove public preference for relicensing actions; gives equal consideration to non-power values (e.g., energy conservation, fish, wildlife, recreation, etc.) as well as to power values when making license decisions.
1986 First power generated at Guri (Raul Leoni) powerplant, Venezuela - Presently the second largest hydroelectric powerplant in the world at 10,300 megawatts installed capacity.
1992 The top five electric generating countries in order are Canada, the United States, Brazil, Russia, and China.
1992 Energy Policy Act of 1992 - An act to provide for improved energy efficiency. Includes provisions to allow for greater competition in energy sales and amendments to section 211 of the Federal Power Act.
1994 National Hydropower Association establishes the Hydropower Research Foundation to facilitate research and to promote educational opportunities on the value of hydropower.
1994 The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has authorized, through its licensing authority under the Federal Power Act, almost 1,700 hydroelectric projects. These projects include about 2,300 dams and multi-purpose water resource developments that provide about 55,000 MW of hydroelectric generating capacity (about one-half of the nation's hydro capacity).
2005 Energy Policy Act, Public Law 109-58
2008 Hydroelectric generation provides about six percent of the United States' electricity.



Last Updated: 2/3/16