Harnessing Power from Water Energy

by Craig Ritsema - Date: 2007-04-21 - Word Count: 517 Share This!

Water is one of the most common chemical compounds on earth, and the oceans provide 75% of the surface of the planet. It's essential to life, and finding water on other planets is one of the major goals of science experiments performed by NASA. Water energy, through the use of waterwheels, was the first industrial process harnessed by human beings, used for powering lumber mills and cutting stone in ancient Egypt, water energy is based off of converting potential energy at the top of a well head to kinetic energy by the flow of water.

Water energy is a renewable energy source, and is primarily used to generate electricity in the modern era through a process called hydroelectric generation, where the flow of the water runs a turbine, which is used to drive a generator. The United States is one of the world leaders in hydroelectric power generation, getting nearly 10% of its total power from hydroelectric plants; as the price of oil increases, and volatility in the Middle East sends shocks through the energy markets, many more consumers are seeing the benefit of water energy and hydro-electric plants, even though dam construction projects are expensive, and significant environmental impacts.

Water energy in the form of water wheels was first used in classical times to run lumber mills and stone cutting saws; this required coincidental placement of good water ways and the resource to be processed. Advances in gearing (most notably the slip cam and transverse axle) allowed water wheels to be used for standing "pestle type" grain mills starting in the second century BC, and these have been shown in movies set in the middle ages for years. The first American hydroelectric dam was opened in 1882; the first hydroelectric dam was opened in the US, a marked departure from coal fired plants. As electrical power spread, the value of hydroelectric power increased, as electrical transmission allows the water energy to be transmitted to locales far from the water head of the dam.

Water energy is the result of converting potential energy from water stored "up hill" or at a higher pressure level converted to kinetic energy; that conversion can be harnessed by water wheels or by electrical turbines. Because year in, year out rainfall patterns are fairly stable, hydroelectric power is predictable. It doesn't require burning fossil fuels; on the other hand, once the plant is built, increasing its output is nearly impossible, as the amount of water energy is determined by the weight of water and the rate of flow or fall over the turbine. Naturally moving, fast flowing water in a deep river carries significant amounts of water energy with the flow, and the steeper the gradient, the more readily accessed that water energy is - think of a waterfall as a good example.

While water energy is a clean, non-emitting energy source, it doesn't come with zero environmental impact; hydroelectric plants require building dams, which create reservoirs and change the local environment, and can flood hundreds of square miles; China's Three Gorges Dam will be flooding an area larger than the state of Nebraska as its reservoir.

Related Tags: renewable energy, electrical power, hydroelectric, water energy

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