The first stage in building a hydropower plant is to find a suitable site. This may appear obvious, but it is important to realise that hydropower is site specific. Not only does it depend on a suitable site being available but the nature of the project will depend on the topography of the site. You cannot have a hydropower plant without a suitable place to construct it. In the case of large hydro projects (>10 MW in capacity), sites will often be a long way from the place where the power is to be used, necessitating a major transmission project too.
A hydropower project requires a river. The energy that can be taken from the river will depend on two factors, the volume of water flowing and the drop in riverbed level, normally known as the head of water, that can be used. A steeply flowing river will yield more electricity than a sluggish one of similar size.
This does not mean that slow-flowing rivers are not suitable for hydropower development. They often provide sites that are cheap and easy to exploit. In contrast, steeply flowing rivers are often in inaccessible regions where exploitation is difficult.
Some sites offer the potential for the generation of thousands of megawatts of power. Probably the largest of these is on the Congo river where a multiple barrage development capable of supporting up to 35,000 MW could be installed. This is exceptionally large; most are smaller. Even so, such sites are likely to be extremely expensive to develop and in the current climate, extremely sensitive. They are also likely to be multipurpose projects involving flood control, irrigation, fisheries and recreational usage as well as electricity generation.
How does one set about locating a hydropower site? Many countries have carried out at least cursory surveys of the hydropower potential within their territory and provisional details of suitable sites are available from the water or power ministries. Sometimes much more detailed information is available but this cannot replace an on-site survey. Indeed surveys carried out as part of a feasibility study form a integral of any hydropower scheme.
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