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Energy timelines


  • Hydropower was used by the Greeks to turn water wheels for grinding grains more than 2,000 years ago.

  • French hydraulic and military engineer Bernard Forest de Belidor wrote Architecture Hydraulique, a four-volume work describing vertical- and horizontal-axis machines.

  • Hydropower was beginning to be used for electricity. The first hydroelectric plants were direct current (DC) stations used to power nearby arc and incandescent lighting.
  • Michigan's Grand Rapids Electric Light and Power Company generated DC electricity, using hydropower at the Wolverine Chair Factory. A dynamo belted to a water turbine at the factory generated electricity to light 16 brush-arc lamps in the store front.
  • Street lamps in the city of Niagara Falls were powered by hydropower (direct current).
  • The world's first central DC hydroelectric station provided power for a paper mill in Appleton, Wisconsin.
  • Between 40 to 50 hydroelectric plants were operating in the United States and in Canada.
  • About 200 electric companies relied on hydropower for at least part of their generation.
  • The nation's first AC hydroelectric plant, Williamette Falls Station, began operation in Oregon City, Oregon.
  • The Austin Dam, near Austin, Texas, was completed. It was the first dam specifically designed for generating hydropower.
  • The Niagara Falls hydropower station opened. It originally provided electricity to the local area. One year later, when a new AC powerline was opened, electric power from Niagara Falls was sent to customers over 20 miles away in Buffalo, New York.
  • The Rivers and First Federal Water Power Act required special permission for a hydroelectric plant to be built and operated on any stream large enough for boat traffic.
  • The first Federal Water Power Act required special permission for a hydroelectric plant to be built and operated on any stream large enough for boat traffic.
  • The Reclamation Act of 1902 created the United States Reclamation Service, later renamed the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The Reclamation Service was formed to manage water resources and was given the authority to build hydropower plants at dams.
  • The Reclamation Service installed a hydropower plant at the Arizona construction site of the Theodore Roosevelt Dam. The power plant was originally built to provide electricity for constructing the dam, but sales of extra electricity helped pay for the project and improved life in the local community.
  • Federal Power Act established the Federal Power Commission (later replaced by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) to issue licenses for hydropower development on public lands.
  • The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was established to take charge of the hydroelectric potential of the Mississippi River in the Tennessee Valley.
  • Construction of the Grand Coulee Dam began on the Columbia River. Originally built to meet irrigation needs, it had more electric generating capacity than any other dam in North America.
  • Federal Power Commission authority was extended to all hydroelectric projects built by utilities engaged in interstate commerce.
  • Boulder Dam (later renamed the Hoover Dam) began operating on the Colorado River. The hydropower plant produced up to 130,000 kilowatts of electricity.

    (Read about Energy Ant's visit to the Hoover Dam.)
  • The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers finished the Bonneville Dam, on the Columbia River in Oregon and Washington.
  • The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) was established.
  • Grand Coulee, the Nation's largest hydroelectric dam, began operation.
  • Almost one-third of the Nation's electricity came from hydropower.
  • The Columbia River Treaty was signed between the United States and Canada. Under the treaty, Canada built two dams for storage and one dam for generation. This resulted in greater power and flood control, which benefited U.S. facilities downstream.

  • The Federal Power Commission was disbanded by Congress. A new agency was created, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), to regulate energy production and transmission.
  • Congress passed the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA) of 1978. The Act required utilities to purchase electricity from qualified independent power producers. Portions of the Act stimulated growth of small-scale hydro plants to help meet the Nation's energy needs.

  • Conventional hydropower plant capacity nearly tripled in United States since 1940.
  • Poor salmon runs in the Columbia River system prompted Congress to pass the Pacific Northwest Power Planning and Conservation Act of 1980. This Act established the Northwest Power Planning Council, responsible for the protection and recovery of salmon runs in the Columbia River system. These laws resulted in a more complex, expensive process to obtain a license for a hydroelectric facility.
  • Congress amended the Federal Power Act to increase the environmental review of hydropower projects.
  • The Northwest Power Planning Council designated 44,000 miles of Pacific Northwest streams as protected areas because of their importance as critical fish and wildlife habitats.
  • Court ruled that the 1993 Biological Opinion, which guided coordinated use of the Columbia River System, failed to meet legal standards associated wtih the Endangered Species Act.
  • The United States ranked among the Top 4 countries in the world for hydroelectric generation, along with China, Canada, and Brazil. These countries generated 44% of the world's electricity from hydropower.
  • Between 6% and 10% of U.S. electricity comes from hydropower, depending on water supply and annual rainfall. In total, the United States has about 80,000 megawatts of conventional capacity and 18,000 megawatts of pumped storage capacity.

Last Revised: January 2009
Sources: Energy Information Administration, The Changing Structure of the U.S. Electric Power Industry 2000, Appendix A: History of U.S. Electric Power Industry: 1882-1991, 2000
U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Reclamation, The History of Hydropower Development in the United States, November 2008
U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Fuels, History of Hydropower, October 2004
U.S. Library of Congress, America's Story - Gilded Age (1878-1889), January 2009
The National Energy Education Development Project, Secondary Energy Infobook, 2008
The Foundation for Water and Energy Education, Timeline of Hydroelectricity and the Northwest, August 2008