Is Hydropower Better Than Solar Power?

Is hydropower better than solar power?

Renewable energy sources like hydropower and solar power are becoming increasingly important as the world seeks to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and mitigate climate change. According to the International Energy Agency, renewables accounted for over 42% of global electricity generation in 2028, with wind and solar doubling their share to 25% (source). The global renewable energy market is projected to grow at an annual rate of 3.88% through 2028, led by growth in solar, wind, and hydropower capacity (source). Renewables are the fastest growing energy source in the US as well, increasing 42% from 2010-2020. As renewable energy capacity expands, understanding the pros and cons of different sources like hydropower and solar will be key to building the optimal clean energy mix.

How Hydropower Works

Hydropower plants rely on the force of moving water to spin turbines and generate electricity. The most common type of hydropower plant uses a dam on a river to create a reservoir. Water in the reservoir flows through a turbine, which spins a generator to produce electricity. The amount of electricity generated depends on both the volume and height of the water drop. The greater the flow and drop, the more electricity generated 1. Dams allow control over water flow and optimize electricity generation. Reservoirs also store water that can be released as needed for electricity generation 2.

The moving water pushes the blades of a turbine, causing it to spin. The turbine is connected to a generator, so as the turbine spins, it rotates the generator to produce electricity. The amount of electricity produced depends on the volume and speed of the water flow as well as the size and efficiency of the turbines 1. After passing through the turbine, the water continues flowing downstream.

Pros of Hydropower

Hydropower is a renewable source of energy since it relies on the water cycle of evaporation and precipitation to replenish the water used to generate electricity ([1]). The renewable nature and ability to store water makes hydropower a reliable source of electricity capable of responding to fluctuations in demand.

Hydropower is also generally cost-effective once constructed, as the fuel (flowing water) is free. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, hydropower is one of the lowest cost and most competitive sources of renewable electricity ([2]).

Finally, hydropower produces virtually no emissions as it generates electricity from flowing water. This makes it a clean source of energy that avoids the air pollution of fossil fuels.

Cons of Hydropower

While hydropower is a renewable energy source, it does have some downsides. Here are some of the main cons of using hydropower:

Hydropower dams and reservoirs can disrupt local ecosystems and wildlife habitats. Building a dam floods areas upstream and changes the natural water flow downstream, which can impact plants, animals, and aquatic life that depend on the original river system.

Sediment buildup behind dams can be problematic over time. As rivers naturally transport silt and sediment downstream, this material can accumulate in reservoirs, reducing storage capacity. Periodic releases of built-up sediment may be needed.

Hydropower depends on water flows, so droughts and climate change can make outputs less reliable. In dry years with lower rainfall and reduced river flows, hydropower generation can decrease compared to average years.

How Solar Power Works

Solar power works through the process of converting energy from sunlight into electricity. This is done primarily through the use of photovoltaic (PV) panels. PV panels contain solar cells made from materials like silicon that are capable of converting photons from sunlight into an electric current (Nationalgrid, 2023). When sunlight hits the solar cells, it knocks electrons free from the atoms in the cell. The movement of these electrons creates an electric current that can then be captured and converted into usable electricity (, 2023).

Photovoltaic panels can vary in size and power output, from small rooftop arrays to large utility-scale solar farms. But the basic principle remains the same – the photovoltaic effect allows solar panels to absorb sunlight and convert it directly into electrical energy. This makes solar power a clean and renewable way to generate electricity.

Pros of Solar Power

Solar power has several major advantages that make it an appealing renewable energy source. First, it relies on the sun, which is an abundant renewable resource. The amount of solar energy that hits the Earth’s surface every hour is greater than the amount of energy used by the entire world in a year (1). Unlike fossil fuels which are finite, the sun’s energy will continue shining indefinitely.

Second, solar power systems produce no emissions during operation. Generating electricity from solar panels creates no greenhouse gases or other pollutants. This makes solar power systems environmentally friendly compared to conventional power plants (2).

Third, solar power systems are modular and can be installed in various configurations. Solar panels can be mounted on rooftops, integrated into building materials, or built as large utility-scale installations. This versatility allows solar power to be deployed in many settings and customized for different applications (3).

Overall, solar power provides a clean, renewable energy source that can help reduce dependence on fossil fuels. As solar technology continues advancing and costs keep falling, solar power has the potential to become a major player in the world’s electricity supply.




Cons of Solar Power

Solar power also has some disadvantages to consider. The first con is that it provides intermittent power. Unlike conventional power plants which provide continuous power, solar energy relies on the sun shining and daylight hours to generate electricity. This means power output is less consistent and needs to be paired with storage solutions or backup generation to provide energy around the clock.

The second downside is the high upfront costs. The cost of purchasing and installing solar panels and associated equipment like inverters and batteries makes going solar a significant investment. Though ongoing costs are low and solar can pay for itself over time, the initial expense to acquire a system can deter some homeowners and businesses.

Finally, solar requires a large land footprint. Solar farms can take up significant land area in order to generate substantial power capacity. This large physical footprint can be problematic in areas where vacant land is limited.

Comparing Hydropower and Solar

When comparing hydropower and solar power, there are several key factors to consider including cost, emissions, reliability, and scalability.

In terms of upfront costs, hydropower plants are more expensive to construct than solar power systems. However, solar requires energy storage systems to provide power when the sun isn’t shining, which adds to the overall costs. Operation and maintenance costs tend to be lower for hydropower plants than solar farms.1

Looking at emissions, hydropower and solar power are both considered clean renewable energy sources. They don’t directly emit greenhouse gases or other pollutants. However, there are methane emissions associated with the reservoirs needed for hydropower dams. Solar has no emissions during operation.

When it comes to reliability, hydropower provides steady, consistent energy 24/7 as long as water is flowing through the dam. Solar power relies on adequate sunlight and varies throughout the day and seasonally. Hydropower plants also generally have higher capacity factors than solar installations.2

In terms of scalability, solar power can be deployed almost anywhere and systems can be sized to meet specific needs. Hydropower requires the right topography and water sources, limiting suitable sites. However, hydropower facilities can generally produce more megawatts per plant.

The Future of Renewables

Renewable energy sources like solar and wind are poised for tremendous growth in the coming years. According to the UN, renewable energy capacity is set to expand by over 60% between 2019 and 2024 (UN, 2022). The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) also forecasts strong growth, with renewables projected to account for 42% of U.S. electricity generation by 2050, up from 20% in 2019 (DOE, 2022).

This growth will be driven by continued technology innovation and cost reductions. For example, the cost of solar panels has dropped over 90% since 2009 while wind turbine costs have fallen around 70% (, 2022). New technologies like floating offshore wind farms, high altitude wind power, and solar thermal storage will further boost renewables.

The rapid scaling of renewables will also play a critical role in mitigating climate change. The International Renewable Energy Agency estimates that renewables must supply at least 85% of global electricity by 2050 in order to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels (UN, 2022). This transition will require trillions in investment but is essential to avert the worst impacts of climate change.


In conclusion, both hydropower and solar power offer clean and renewable energy solutions. Hydropower has the benefits of low operating costs and the ability to generate a large amount of electricity consistently. However, it requires suitable geography and can have major environmental impacts on rivers and aquatic life. Solar power is extremely scalable and modular, has minimal environmental effects, and costs continue to decrease rapidly. But solar is intermittent and currently more expensive than hydropower. The ideal future likely involves continued growth in both technologies, leveraging their unique strengths, as countries transition away from fossil fuels. Hydropower can provide baseload power while solar contributes during peak demand. The renewable transition will require utilizing diverse technologies and sources. Both hydropower and solar will play major roles in building a sustainable energy future if deployed conscientiously.

The key takeaways are:

  • Hydropower provides low-cost, reliable electricity but can damage river ecosystems
  • Solar is scalable, modular, getting cheaper but provides intermittent power
  • An optimal renewable future uses both hydropower and solar responsibly

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