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How Hydropower Plants Work

Pumped-Storage Plants
The giant generators at Hoover Dam produce more than 2,000 megawatts.
The giant generators at Hoover Dam produce more than 2,000 megawatts.
Photo courtesy U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

There's another type of hydropower plant, called the pumped-storage plant. In a conventional hydropower plant, the water from the reservoir flows through the plant, exits and is carried down stream. A pumped-storage plant has two reservoirs:

  • Upper reservoir - Like a conventional hydropower plant, a dam creates a reservoir. The water in this reservoir flows through the hydropower plant to create electricity.
  • Lower reservoir - Water exiting the hydropower plant flows into a lower reservoir rather than re-entering the river and flowing downstream.

Using a reversible turbine, the plant can pump water back to the upper reservoir. This is done in off-peak hours. Essentially, the second reservoir refills the upper reservoir. By pumping water back to the upper reservoir, the plant has more water to generate electricity during periods of peak consumption.

The Generator

The heart of the hydroelectric power plant is the generator. Most hydropower plants have several of these generators.

The generator, as you might have guessed, generates the electricity. The basic process of generating electricity in this manner is to rotate a series of magnets inside coils of wire. This process moves electrons, which produces electrical current.

The Hoover Dam has a total of 17 generators, each of which can generate up to 133 megawatts. The total capacity of the Hoover Dam hydropower plant is 2,074 megawatts. Each generator is made of certain basic parts:

  • Shaft
  • Excitor
  • Rotor
  • Stator

As the turbine turns, the excitor sends an electrical current to the rotor. The rotor is a series of large electromagnets that spins inside a tightly-wound coil of copper wire, called the stator. The magnetic field between the coil and the magnets creates an electric current.

In the Hoover Dam, a current of 16,500 amps moves from the generator to the transformer, where the current ramps up to 230,000 amps before being transmitted.

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