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Hydroelectric Plant Technicians


Early civilizations used water power for agricultural and industrial tasks. The ancient Chinese, Greeks, and Romans used water-powered mills to grind wheat and saw wood. Later cultures used water to power manufacturing plants and textile mills.

In the mid-1700s, the modern hydro turbine was developed by engineer James Francis, and this type of turbine is still in use today. The first hydropower plants started operating on the Fox River in Appleton, Wisconsin, in 1882. Within five years, there were 45 water-powered electric plants in operation in eastern U.S. and Canada, and the first hydroelectric plant opened in in San Bernardino, California.

In the early 20th century, the federal government became more active in waterways management and use and water power generation. It established the Bureau of Reclamation in 1902, to help build and manage dams, power plants, and canals. Its aim was to encourage economic development in the western United States. The Federal Water Power Act was enacted in 1920, to encourage the development of hydroelectric projects, such as dams and reservoirs. Construction on the Hoover Dam began in 1931, with more than 20,000 workers involved in the project. The dam began generating power in 1937, and is still in operation today. The Tennessee Valley Authority was established in 1933, with the main goal of constructing dams to generate, sell, and distribute electrical power in order to improve the economic climate in the Tennessee River Valley. In 1940, hydropower provided 40 percent of electrical generation in the United States.

The hydropower industry continues to be a key player in renewable energy, despite calls by environmentalists to dismantle dams in order to protect endangered and threatened species, and for other reasons. Hydropower is the largest and least expensive type of renewable energy in the United States. In 2018, renewable energy accounted for about 11 percent of U.S. energy consumption and 17 percent of electricity consumption, according to the Energy Information Administration. Hydropower constituted 7 percent of the utility-scale electricity generated in the U.S. and 39 percent of utility-scale electricity generated from all renewable energy.

In addition to hydropower generated by rivers, streams, and lakes, researchers are studying the use of other water resources—such as tidal energy, ocean thermal energy conversion, and wave energy—to generate power.

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