Most commonly erected as a barrier to stop water flow and establish reservoirs, dams may serve a variety of purposes. In the United States, the majority of dams were built in the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century. Their purpose in many cases was to support the increasing number of people moving to water-scarce regions in the West of the country, as well as providing a steady water source for irrigation for the agricultural sector. Three percent of dams in the U.S. additionally serve as hydroelectric facilities.
Hydropower usage in the U.S.
Hydropower is one of the earliest sources of energy generation known to humankind. The oldest functional U.S. hydropower plant, Whiting in Wisconsin, dates back to 1891. However, as the average age of dams increases every year, so does the need for maintaining their safe operation. It was found that nearly one third of all dams in the country had a high or significant hazard risk, with the potential to become life-threatening to a large number of people living downstream of the barred reservoirs and rivers.
Washington state's Grand Coulee on the Columbia River is the largest dam by hydropower nameplate capacity in the U.S. Its capacity is more than double that of the next biggest dam and over five times the capacity of the Hoover Dam, which holds the greatest lake volume. Of the ten largest hydroelectric facilities, four are located in Washington, making it the leading hydropower producing state in the country. Between January and June 2020, some 40 terawatt hours of electricity were generated by hydroelectric facilities in Washington.
Hydropower industry employment in decline
U.S. hydropower consumption has seen only slight fluctuations since 2006. Figures peaked at 3.1 quadrillion British thermal units in 2011 and had declined to 2.5 quadrillion British thermal units by 2019. Similarly, the number of workers in the U.S. hydroelectric power generation industry has fallen significantly since 2001. Employment was particularly affected by the Great Recession and energy efficiency measures, which resulted in only a little over six thousand people being employed by the industry as of 2019.
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