The attractiveness of impoundment systems is understandable: Water is a renewable source of energy, and the natural rain cycle constantly replenishes the water supply, at zero cost. No fossil fuels are needed, and the supply of raw fuel is virtually automatic. Hydropower dams also reduce a nation's reliance on foreign energy sources. Following are some other key benefits:
✓ Hydropower is cost competitive with all other energy sources, and in many cases it provides the cheapest energy obtainable. As much as 90 percent of the potential energy of flowing water can be transformed into electrical energy, which makes it one of the most efficient energy sources. Fossil fuel plants can generally achieve only 50 percent efficiencies, at best.
✓ Hydropower can be altered very easily in terms of immediate power output. Hydropower plants can be easily turned up or down, at will. It's a simple matter to simply lower or raise the gates to decrease or increase the flow through the turbines. When load conditions change, hydropower plants are the perfect solution.
✓ The storage is safe and clean, without the tremendous hazards associated with fossil fuel storage. Hydropower is unique in that it can both store potential energy, then convert it to immediate use. The reservoirs can serve the dual purpose of supplying potable water to communities nearby. Plus, storing hydropower potential energy results in recreation usage, and no other energy source can advertise that advantage. In fact, the recreational opportunities that impoundment dams afford may be even more valuable than the energy they provide.
Many dams are built solely for their recreational value. In 1996 alone, over 80 million user days were spent fishing, camping, hiking, and boating above impoundment dams in the U.S.
✓ Large reservoirs, a key component of impoundment systems, help ensure consistent energy output despite weather fluctuations. During periods of drought, the water contained above the dam will slowly fall in depth, but there's generally enough water to last several months, if not years.
✓ Hydropower produces no toxic wastes, pollutants, or carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases. There is no pollution generated, in particular no greenhouse gases. There are also no sulfur emissions or other sooty waste products. There are no fuel transport lines required, other than the rivers and streams themselves, and these are certainly much better than pipelines and highways full of oil tankers.
In 2000, U.S. hydropower plants offset the burning of 28 million gallons of oil, 121 million tons of coal, and 750 billion cubic feet of natural gas. In the process, 1.6 tons of sulfur dioxide and 1 million tons of nitrogen oxide were spared from the air. Seventy-seven million tons of carbon dioxide were also offset, and this may be the greatest advantage of hydro over fossil fuels. This savings of carbon dioxide represents the emission by 60 million passenger vehicles each year.
These benefits are both blessing and curse, as nations sometimes come to blows over water rights. For instance, a nation that's upriver can dam the river, causing undue hardship downriver. What's the solution?
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