When Was The First Hydroelectric Built?

Hydroelectric power is one of the oldest forms of renewable energy generation, and has played a key role in the development of electrical systems worldwide. Knowing the history of hydroelectric power provides important context for how this technology emerged and expanded over time. Tracing the timeline of major hydroelectric achievements illustrates the engineering feats and economic drivers that enabled large-scale hydropower projects. Understanding past challenges and benefits also informs decisions about hydroelectricity’s ongoing role in our energy future. This article will summarize key events and innovations in the long and pioneering history of hydropower.

Hydropower’s Early History

Humans have been harnessing the power of flowing water for thousands of years. Some of the earliest uses of hydropower were waterwheels, which were first used in ancient Greece to grind wheat into flour. Waterwheels were also widely used throughout the Roman Empire and medieval Europe for milling and pumping water from here. The ancient Chinese also developed waterwheels during the Han Dynasty between 202 BC and 220 AD. These early waterwheels converted the kinetic energy of flowing water into mechanical energy to perform work from this source.

While waterwheels only extracted a fraction of the available energy in flowing water, they paved the way for more advanced hydropower technologies that would emerge centuries later. The key breakthrough was understanding how to convert the mechanical energy from water into electricity.

First Hydroelectric Plants

an old illustration of one of the first hydroelectric power plants built in the late 1800s

The first known hydroelectric power plant was built in 1878 in Cragside, Northumberland, England by William George Armstrong. This small plant powered a single arc lamp in Armstrong’s art gallery using water from lakes in the area (Source). Though minimal power was generated, this pioneering project demonstrated the viability of hydropower on a larger scale.

In the United States, the first operational hydroelectric plant was built in 1882 to provide street lighting in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It used water from the Grand River to power two Brush arc lamps (Source). This pequeño plant only generated 12.5 kilowatts, but paved the way for larger hydro projects.

By 1890, hydroelectric plants were being constructed around the world, though most remained small in scale. Notable early plants include a 200 kW system built near Niagara Falls in 1889, providing electricity locally in Niagara Falls, New York. The Electrical Development Company in London also opened a hydroelectric plant on the Thames River in 1894 (Source). Though output was minimal by today’s standards, these pioneering 19th century plants established the foundations of hydroelectricity.

Hydroelectricity Spreads

In the early 1900s, hydropower began to grow substantially across North America and Europe. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, hydropower provided more than 40% of the United States’ electric power by 1920. With the advent of alternating current electricity transmission developed by Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse in the late 1880s, hydropower could be generated further away from where it was used.

Many small hydropower plants were built on rivers in remote areas to provide electricity. Larger projects also emerged, like the Edward Dean Adams Power Plant completed in 1895 on the Niagara River. It used the largest generators in the world at the time and supplied electricity to Buffalo, New York. Throughout the early 20th century, other major hydropower projects were constructed across the U.S. and Canada including the Keokuk Dam in Iowa, the Ontonagon Plant in Michigan, and the La Loutre Dam in Quebec.

Europe also saw substantial hydropower development in the early 1900s, as countries like Norway, Sweden, Switzerland built plants to power growing industries. According to Fuergy, by 1920 hydroelectricity supplied 10% of global electricity production as it expanded around the world.

Largest Early Hydro Plants

Some of the largest and most famous early hydroelectric projects in the United States include the Hoover Dam, Grand Coulee Dam, and Shasta Dam.

The Hoover Dam, located on the Colorado River bordering Arizona and Nevada, was one of the largest hydroelectric power plants in the world when it was completed in 1936. At 726 feet high, the concrete gravity-arch dam was an engineering marvel, able to generate up to 2,080 megawatts of power from its 17 generators.

The Grand Coulee Dam on Washington state’s Columbia River began construction in 1933 during the New Deal era. When its first powerhouse was complete in 1942, it was the largest hydro plant in the United States with a capacity of 1.97 gigawatts. Upon its full completion in the 1960s, Grand Coulee’s 18 generators could produce over 6,800 megawatts, making it still one of the largest hydro plants in the country.

Further up the Columbia River basin, northern California’s Shasta Dam was another massive infrastructure project of the era. Finished in 1945, its generators have a capacity of 680 megawatts. Shasta Dam’s reservoir is also one of the largest in the country for storage and irrigation supply.

These massive concrete dams represented the pinnacle of hydroelectric engineering in the early-to-mid 20th century. Many still rank among the country’s largest hydroelectric facilities.

Post-War Hydroelectric Expansion

There was a major surge in dam building and hydroelectric power generation in the United States after World War II. Several factors drove this rapid expansion of hydropower infrastructure:

The postwar economic boom led to a huge increase in demand for electricity across the country, especially with the rise of home appliances and suburban expansion. The rural electrification efforts in the 1930s had brought power to much of America, and now consumers wanted even more electricity.

Federal incentives made massive hydro projects financially attractive, like low-interest loans from the Rural Electrification Administration. The federal government also took on much of the upfront costs of building dams and power plants through public works agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation.

Advances in dam construction and turbine technology enabled larger and more efficient hydroelectric facilities to be built. Better transmission lines allowed power to be distributed over longer distances.

From 1940 to 1970, over 1,000 new dams were built across the country as part of hydropower projects. Major regional projects like those along the Columbia River and Colorado River came online during this period. Overall hydroelectric generation increased over five-fold in the postwar decades to provide over 30% of the nation’s electricity by 1970. The massive expansion of hydropower was a key driver in meeting the booming demand for cheap and reliable electricity.


[https://www.energy.gov/eere/water/history-hydropower](“History of Hydropower,” U.S. Department of Energy)

[https://www.nps.gov/articles/7-hydroelectric-power-in-the-20th-century-and-beyond.htm](“7. Hydroelectric Power in the 20th Century and Beyond,” National Park Service)

Environmental Impacts Emerge

While hydroelectric power expanded rapidly in the early and mid 20th century, the environmental impacts soon led to increasing public concern and pushback. Flooding land for hydroelectric reservoirs results in dramatic habitat destruction, wiping out forests, wildlife habitats, and agricultural lands across large areas [1]. One study by the National Institute for Research Advancement in Japan estimated that the habitat alterations from hydropower worldwide had contributed to the extinction of at least 24 freshwater fish species by 1980 [1].

Reservoir creation also fragments river habitats, harming the ability of fish and other species to migrate and reproduce. These substantial changes to land, rivers, and water systems have profoundly negative effects on native plants and animals in and around affected rivers [2]. Inundating land for reservoirs may also cover or damage important natural areas, archeological sites, or agricultural land.

Downstream river habitats and flows are also altered by hydroelectric facilities. Water flow changes and reduced sediment transport often negatively impact riverine and coastal ecosystems [3]. Overall, the substantial impacts on natural habitats and ecosystems have led to increasing scrutiny and pushback against new large hydroelectric projects.

Hydroelectric Development Today

In recent years, there has been a resurgence in hydroelectric power development as countries seek renewable energy sources. Some key trends in modern hydroelectric projects include:

Digitalization and automation – New digital technologies like sensors, data analytics and artificial intelligence are being used to monitor and optimize hydroelectric dam operations.[1]

Pumped storage – Pumped storage plants can store energy and provide grid stability by pumping water uphill into a reservoir when electricity demand is low and releasing it to generate power when demand is high.[2]

Upgrades to existing dams – Many existing dams are being upgraded with more efficient turbines and generators to increase their energy output.

New large-scale projects – Countries like Brazil, China and Ethiopia are building massive new hydroelectric dams and plants to meet rising energy needs.

Some major modern hydroelectric projects include the 11,233 MW Belo Monte Dam in Brazil, the 22,500 MW Three Gorges Dam in China and the 6,000 MW Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam currently under construction.

The Future of Hydropower

Hydropower will continue to play a major role in renewable energy production in the coming decades. According to the International Energy Agency, global hydropower capacity is expected to grow by 17%, or 230 GW, between 2021-2030.1 However, growth rates are slowing compared to previous decades. The most favorable sites for large hydro plants have already been developed in many countries.

Future growth is expected to come mainly from modernizing existing plants, adding pumped storage capacity, and developing smaller run-of-river projects. There is also increasing interest in marine energy from waves, tides, and ocean currents, but these technologies remain less mature.

A key challenge facing hydropower will be balancing energy production with environmental impacts. Efforts are underway to improve fish passages at dams and ensure adequate water flows for wildlife habitat. Some dams are being removed where the environmental benefits outweigh energy production. Climate change may also impact water supplies and increase drought risks in some regions.

Overall, hydropower is poised to remain a major renewable electricity source globally. With careful planning and environmental mitigation, it can play a key role in transitioning to a clean energy system while meeting growing energy demands.


In conclusion, hydropower has played an instrumental role in the development of renewable electricity generation for over a century. The first hydroelectric plants paved the way for large-scale renewable power production and helped drive industrial growth in the early 20th century. Although environmental concerns emerged later on, hydropower remains one of the largest and most reliable sources of clean energy globally.

Key learnings show that hydropower relies on a renewable fuel source (water), produces no direct waste or emissions, and provides flexibility to electric grids. With technological advances and more sustainable practices, hydropower can continue supplying clean electricity for years to come. Its storability and quick ramping capabilities will also help balance variable renewable sources like wind and solar. While not without impacts, hydropower’s benefits demonstrate its ongoing importance as nations transition to low-carbon energy systems.

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