Conventional Hydroelectric Dams

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There are three main types of conventional hydropower technologies: impoundment (dam), diversion, and pumped storage.

Impoundment is the most common type of hydroelectric power plant. An impoundment facility, typically a large hydro-power system, uses a dam to store river water in a reservoir. Water released from the reservoir flows through a turbine, spinning it, which in turn activates a generator to produce electricity. Generation may be used fairly flexibly to meet base load as well as peak load demands. The water may also be released either to meet changing electricity needs or to maintain a constant reservoir level. The layout of a typical impoundment hydropower facility is shown below in the first figure. One of the world’s most famous impoundment Dams, the Hoover Dam, is shown in the second figure (although it’s worth noting that on a global scale, the Hoover Dam is more famous than it is large).

Hydroelectric Dam Diagram as described above. Intake flows water to the turbine which creates power. Water is then released.
Conventional Impoundment Dam
Source: Tennessee Valley Authority
Hoover Dam. Big concrete wall separating the river. Water behind dam is higher elevation and much wider than the river below the dam
Hoover Dam
Source: In the Public Domain

A diversion, sometimes called run-of-river, facility channels a portion of a river through a canal or penstock. It may not require the use of a dam but also has limited flexibility to follow peak variation in power demand. Thus, it will mainly be useful for baseload capacity. This scenario results in limited flooding and changes to river flow. In the United States, many of the dams in the Pacific Northwest (on the Columbia and Snake Rivers) are diversion or run-of-river dams, with limited or no storage reservoir behind the dam. The figure below shows a picture of a diversion hydro-power facility. Compare what that facility looks like with the picture of Hoover Dam, the impoundment facility shown above.

Diversion dam. Water falls naturally, no infrastructure. Intake diverts some water and outlet releases it at the bottom of waterfall
Diversion or “run-of-river” dam
Source: US Department of Energy

A “pumped storage” hydro dam combines a small storage reservoir with a system for cycling water back into the reservoir after it has been released through the turbine, thus “re-using” the same water to generate electricity at a later time. When the demand for electricity is low (typically at night), a pumped storage facility stores energy by pumping water from a lower reservoir to an upper reservoir. During periods of high electrical demand (typically during the day), the water is released back to the lower reservoir to generate electricity. The figure below shows a schematic of a pumped storage hydro facility. Pumped storage facilities are typically smaller in terms of generation capacity than their impoundment or diversion counterparts, but are sometimes combined with impoundment or diversion facilities to increase peak power output or flexibility.

Diagram of pumped storage hydro facility. Water is pumped underground from reservoir through a powerplant chamber then discharged lower
Schematic of a pumped-storage hydro facility
Source: Tennessee Valley Authority

Learning Checkpoint

Choose the answer below that best finishes the statement.

A hydroelectric facility that cycles water back through to the reservoir after it has been released is called what type of hydroelectric dam?

a. Pumped storage
b. Impoundment
c. Diversion
d. Run-of-river
e. Hydrokinetic


Click for answer.

ANSWER: The answer is a. A “pumped storage” facility combines a small storage reservoir with a system for cycling water back into the reservoir after it has been released through the turbine, thus “re-using” the same water to generate electricity at a later time.