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What is small hydro power?

Small hydro power is a method of producing renewable energy on a small scale using hydroelectricity technology. These systems use water flow to turn turbines, producing mechanical energy which is then converted to electricity. Such systems are popular in remote communities, especially those in mountainous regions or along rivers and streams.

There are three categories of small hydro systems, micro hydro, mini hydro and small hydro. Micro hydro systems produce up to 100kW of electricity. Mini-hydro systems produce up to 1000kW. Small hydro systems produce up to 10MW, though these numbers can differ from country to country. In the USA and Canada systems up to 50MW can be classified as small-hydro. These systems contrast with traditional hydroelectricity systems, which are attached to enormous dams and produce electricity on a massive scale, generally measured in gigawatts.

How is small hydro power used?

Small hydro systems are used to produce electricity for homes or remote communities. In most small hydro systems water is sourced from a reservoir, which could be little more than a small dammed pool. Gravity is used to transport the water through pipework to a generating station. The water flow turns a turbine, or turbines, which produce mechanical energy. This mechanical energy is then converted to electricity through an alternator.

The electricity can be used straight from the generator or transferred through wires to the point of use. The electricity is then used to power standard electrical appliances such as light bulbs, heating elements, refrigerators, etc. It can also be stored in batteries for later use.

Who uses small hydro power?

Small hydro systems are especially popular in China, where large rural communities often have no connection to the national electricity grid. In China, 30% of the population get their electricity from small hydro products, mostly in remote mountain villages. In 2008 more than 51,000MW of installed small hydro capacity existed in China, more than half the global total that year.

The European Union are also significant users of small hydro, with about 12,500MW of generating capacity operational in 2010. The USA, Canada and Brazil are also significant users of small hydro technology. In the USA installed small hydro capacity exceeds 3000MW as of 2008. Canada has an installed capacity of 2000MW in the same year, with Brazil not far behind on 1400MW.

India is also a major user with an installed capacity exceeding 2950MW in 2011.

Many other developing nations, especially in Asia and South America have significant small hydro projects in the development stage.

Interesting small hydro power facts about:

  • Since 1949, small hydro power has supplied more than 700 tWh of commercial electricity to the rural areas of China.
  • China plans to install more than 75,000 MW of small hydro power capacity by 2020.

Extra References:

For more information, visit our Alternative Energy section.
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