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Hydroelectricity in Australia: Hydropower and Hydroelectric Generation

Hydroelectric dam on blue background

Hydropower (also called hydro) is one of the oldest methods of renewable energy generation. For thousands of years, water has been used to run mills to grind flour, break up ore, and even make paper. Technology has improved greatly since then, and today hydropower is one of the most popular methods of renewable energy generation and storage across the globe. By capturing the power of water, and running it through generators, hydropower can turn this energy into electricity for everyday use. Discover everything you need to know about hydropower and hydroelectricity in Australia, by continuing to read below.

What is hydropower? How does hydroelectricity work?

Hydropower is power derived from the energy of falling or fast moving water. Today, the most popular use of hydropower is hydroelectric generation, which usually involves the use of dams and reservoirs to generate and store electricity. Around 16% of all global energy produced is through hydropower, and it accounts for 70% of all renewable energy generated across the world.

There are four major types of hydropower generating methods, which occasionally overlap in order to supplement electricity generation.

 Run-of-river hydropower utilizes the movement of water to generate electricity. Due to the nature of rivers, this method of hydropower often has no storage capacity and instead continuously generates a supply of electricity

 Storage hydropower uses dams to store water in reservoirs, generating electricity by releasing the water through a turbine to activate the generators. Storage hydropower is able to meet demands of the electricity grid, by being able to turn off and on as needed and due to its storage capacity, can work for months without needing more water.

 Pumped-storage hydropower is similar to storage hydropower, but requires the use of an upper and lower reservoir. When demand on the grid is high, water is released through turbines from the upper reservoir to the lower reservoir, and when demand is low water is pumped back into the upper reservoir using surplus energy.

 Offshore hydropower is a newer method of hydroelectric generation, which utilizes tidal waves and tidal lagoons to generate electricity in a similar manner as hydroelectric dams.

The pros and cons of hydroelectricity

Hydropower and hydroelectric generation is among the most popular, and well known, renewable energy resources in the world. That doesn’t mean it isn’t without its disadvantages, however.

As a renewable source of energy, hydropower is able to generate vast amounts of electricity at one time and can be used in tandem with other renewables such as wind power or solar energy. However, the start-up costs are incredibly expensive to build the infrastructure necessary to generate hydroelectricity. In addition, despite its status as a renewable energy source, hydroelectric generation can have an adverse effect on the surrounding wildlife by disrupting the ecosystem it's built in, harming native plants and animals both in and around the water it uses.

Hydroelectricity advantages and disadvantages
Advantages of hydroelectricity Disadvantages of hydroelectricity
  • Renewable resource
  • Can be used with other renewable resources
  • Able to meet peak electricity demands
  • Environmental impact due to construction of hydroelectric technology
  • Expensive start-up costs
  • Dependent on rainfall and can be adversely affected by droughts

Hydropower stations in Australia

Despite over 100 hydro power stations in Australia, hydropower and hydroelectricity in Australia is on the decline. Since the Australian Clean Energy Council first began its annual Clean Energy Report in 2013, hydropower has dropped from contributing 55.4% to all renewable energy generation, to 25.7% according to their 2020 report and declined in its total electricity contribution from 8.2% in 2013 to 6.2%. This decline can mostly be attributed to the ongoing drought in the country, as well as the push to increase other renewable energy resources such as wind power and solar energy.

Over half of all the hydropower generation in the country is thanks to Snowy Hydro, the largest hydroelectric project in Australia and located in New South Wales. Currently, Snowy Hydro’s network of hydroelectric power stations contribute to just about half of all hydroelectricity generated in the country (4,100MW according to the Snowy Hydro website), and with the “Snowy 2.0” expansion in the works, that amount could increase by an additional 2,000MW by early 2025. Outside of Snowy Hydro, the network of hydroelectric generators in Tasmania (which heavily relies on the renewable resource) holds the largest concentration of hydropower.

Micro-hydro energy generation

Micro-hydro electricity are small-scale hydroelectric generating systems that utilize small streams or rivers to generate power. Micro-hydro systems are great, because they don’t require much maintenance and can run 24-hours a day while being independent of wind or sun like solar power or wind power.

Unfortunately, not much of Australia is suitable for micro-hydro systems, as continuously running water is required. However, micro-hydro systems can be much more cost effective and efficient than other small-scale renewable energy methods if you do have the running water suitable for hydroelectric generation.

The future of hydroelectricity & hydropower in Australia

As stated, hydroelectricity in Australia is on the decline, while renewable resources such as solar or wind power are becoming more popular. Being so dependent on rainfall and weather patterns, hydroelectricity is one of the renewable resources most affected by climate change and recent, and long-lasting, droughts have begun to dry up the reservoirs needed to generate its power.

That being said, Snowy 2.0 is still in the works and expected to start generating electricity by 2025 while providing Australia with over 2,000 direct jobs during construction. This multi-billion dollar project could be exactly what Australia needs to jumpstart it’s hydroelectric generation once again, bringing life to the declining renewable resource.

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