Hydropower: A Centuries-old Energy Source Can Also Combat Climate Change

Rainy days may make you blue. But keep this in mind: they’re part of living in New York, a water-rich state that happens to be the largest hydropower producer east of the Rocky Mountains and ranks fourth in the nation for generating electricity produced by hydropower.

Why should this cheer you up? Water is a clean fuel source – hydropower produces no carbon emissions. Hydropower is inherently renewable because it relies on nature’s water cycle. We can tap into it on an as-needed basis, using turbines to control water flow to coordinate power production with demand.

Hydropower plants generate electricity by capturing the energy of falling water. A dam’s turbines convert the kinetic energy of falling water into mechanical energy. Then a generator converts the mechanical energy from the turbine into electrical energy. Hydropower generates more than 4,000 terawatt-hours of electricity globally every year, enough to supply over 1 billion people with clean energy. If all of that electricity came from coal generation, it would release more than 4 billion metric tons of additional greenhouse gases into the atmosphere annually, and global emissions from fossil fuels and industry would be at least 10 per cent higher.

This type of renewable power has plenty of side benefits too; reservoirs can double as aquatic playgrounds for boaters, fishermen, and swimmers.

Hydropower has been a staple of power production in New York for centuries. The School Street hydroelectric plant in Cohoes, a historic red brick dam that once powered the largest cotton mill in North America, now generates 172 gigawatt hours per year, according to Julie Pelletier, manager of stakeholder relations for the plant’s operator, Brookfield Renewable Energy. There’s been a dam on this stretch of the Mohawk River since 1831 and the current dam was built in 1885. Its five turbines, built at the General Electric plant in Schenectady, were installed in the early 1900s. The fact that it’s still using its original equipment makes it a working museum providing power to 21st-century consumers.

Cornell University also has its own hydropower plant. The rough-hewn stone building at the bottom of the Fall Creek gorge was built in the 1880s and is woven into the history of the University. Ezra Cornell, its co-founder, was one of the pioneers of hydroelectric power in Ithaca, using Fall Creek to power a mill he operated at the foot of Ithaca Falls. From the very beginning, it was a showcase for the University; Cornell’s School of Engineering devoted years to developing what was called the Hydraulics Lab (the 80-foot structure collapsed in 2009). The plant operating today was built in 1907 and is integral to the Cornell Climate Action Plan. Upgrades that are in the works will increase the plant’s electrical production by 1 million kWh per year and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 450 to 600 metric tons per year.

Hydropower is an important part of New York’s efforts to combat climate change. NYLCV will continue to advocate for policies that encourage this type of energy, along with other renewable energy technologies.