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Harnessing energy from water

Nearly three-quarters of Earth’s surface is water. Its movement, whether the flow of a river or an ocean’s waves, is a powerful source of renewable energy harnessed through hydropower and marine energy. But how exactly does water generate energy? 

Hydropower generation converts the power of a river or a waterfall to electricity, such as with a dam. When water flows through a dam, it turns turbines, which are like giant waterwheels. The movement generates electricity.  

Marine energy generation harnesses the power of the ocean instead of rivers. There are different ways to do this: 

  1. Tidal energy. Tides are caused by the gravitational pull of the moon and the sun on the oceans, which creates regular patterns of rising and falling water levels. Turbines underwater in areas with strong tidal currents can convert this motion into electricity.  
  2. Wave energy. Waves are caused by wind blowing across the surface of the ocean. Devices called wave energy converters capture the up and down motion of waves and convert it into electricity.  

Hydropower and marine energy offer many benefits. As renewable sources, we can rely on them for as long as rivers and oceans exist. Plus, harnessing energy from water movement doesn’t release any harmful pollutants into the air. Building dams for hydropower energy can also create recreational areas for activities like swimming, boating and fishing, while marine energy projects can create new habitats for marine life and help support biodiversity in the ocean.  

But what about the fish and other wildlife? 

When developing any new project for energy generation, energy companies conduct environmental surveys to find the best locations and ensure minimal impact to surrounding wildlife. When finding a new spot for a hydropower dam, energy companies survey rivers and the surrounding land for potential flooding, wildlife displacement and other effects on the natural environment. These surveys ensure biodiversity and habitat safety for plants and animals that rely on the river’s natural flow. 

With marine energy, installing tidal turbines or wave energy converters in the ocean could alter the movement of water and disturb marine habitats. This could affect the behavior, migration patterns and breeding grounds of marine species. Environmental surveys help identify species within proposed project areas that might be subject to these concerns and create plans to reduce the effect on species’ migratory, breeding and communication habits. 

In addition to environmental surveys, proper planning and management of hydropower and marine projects can help minimize the project’s impact on the surrounding environment. For example, fish ladders can be installed to allow fish to bypass dams. Ongoing research and technological advancements aim to develop more efficient technologies to reduce environmental effects. 

Both hydropower and marine energy are important sources of renewable energy that can help reduce our reliance on nonrenewable sources and combat climate change. By harnessing the power of moving water, whether from rivers or the ocean, we can generate electricity in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way. Learn more about Alliant Energy’s hydropower dams here.  

Grant Barton is a Communications Partner with a passion for sustainability and eco-friendly city planning. He has a diverse background in engineering, politics and international communications and hopes to apply this experience when writing and breaking down complex topics related to Alliant Energy's Clean Energy Future plans.

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