The capability to produce and deliver electricity for widespread consumption was one of the most important factors in the surge of American economic influence and wealth in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Hydroelectric power, among the first and simplest of the technologies that generated electricity, was initially developed using low dams of rock, timber, or granite block construction to collect water from rainfall and surface runoff into a reservoir. The water was funnelled into a pipe (or pen-stock) and directed to a waterwheel (or turbine) where the force of the falling water on the turbine blades rotated the turbine and its main shaft. This shaft was connected to a generator, and the rotating generator produced electricity. One gallon (American; about 3.8 liters) of water falling 100 feet (about 30 meters) each second produced slightly more than 1,000 watts (or one kilowatt) of electricity, enough to power ten 100-watt light bulbs or a typical hairdryer.
There are now three types of hydroelectric installations: storage, run-of-river, and pumped-storage facilities. Storage facilities use a dam to capture water in a reservoir. This stored water is released from the reservoir through turbines at the rate required to meet changing electricity needs or other needs such as flood control, fish passage, irrigation, navigation, and recreation.
Run-of-river facilities use only the natural flow of the river to operate the turbine. If the conditions are right, this type of project can be constructed without a dam or with a low diversion structure to direct water from the stream channel into a penstock.
Pumped-storage facilities, an innovation of the 1950s, have specially designed turbines. These turbines have the ability to generate electricity the conventional way when water is delivered through penstocks to the turbines from a reservoir. They can also be reversed and used as pumps to lift water from the powerhouse back up into the reservoir where the water is stored for later use. During the daytime when electricity demand suddenly increases, the gates of the pumped-storage facility are opened and stored water is released from the reservoir to generate and quickly deliver electricity to meet the demand. At night when electricity demand is lowest and there is excess electricity available from coal or nuclear electricity generating facilities the turbines are reversed and pump water back into the reservoir. Operating in this manner, a pumped-storage facility improves the operating efficiency of all power plants within an electric system. Hydroelectric developments provide unique benefits not available with other electricity generating technologies. They do not contribute to air pollution, acid rain, or ozone depletion, and do not produce toxic wastes. As a part of normal operations many hydroelectric facilities also provide flood control, water supply for drinking and irrigation, and recreational opportunities such as fishing, swimming, water-skiing, picnicking, camping, rafting, boating, and sightseeing.