Visualizing the World’s Largest Hydroelectric Dams
Did you know that hydroelectricity is the world’s biggest source of renewable energy? According to recent figures from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), it represents 40% of total capacity, ahead of solar (28%) and wind (27%).
This type of energy is generated by hydroelectric power stations, which are essentially large dams that use the water flow to spin a turbine. They can also serve secondary functions such as flow monitoring and flood control.
To help you learn more about hydropower, we’ve visualized the five largest hydroelectric dams in the world, ranked by their maximum output.
Overview of the Data
The following table lists key information about the five dams shown in this graphic, as of 2021. Installed capacity is the maximum amount of power that a plant can generate under full load.
|🇨🇳 China||Three Gorges Dam||Yangtze River||22.5||181 x 2,335|
|🇧🇷 Brazil / 🇵🇾 Paraguay||Itaipu Dam||Parana River||14.0||196 x 7,919|
|🇨🇳 China||Xiluodu Dam||Jinsha River||13.9||286 x 700|
|🇧🇷 Brazil||Belo Monte Dam||Xingu River||11.2||90 X 3,545|
|🇻🇪 Venezuela||Guri Dam||Caroni River||10.2||162 x 7,426|
At the top of the list is China’s Three Gorges Dam , which opened in 2003. It has an installed capacity of 22.5 gigawatts (GW), which is close to double the second-place Itaipu Dam .
In terms of annual output, the Itaipu Dam actually produces about the same amount of electricity. This is because the Parana River has a low seasonal variance, meaning the flow rate changes very little throughout the year. On the other hand, the Yangtze River has a significant drop in flow for several months of the year.
For a point of comparison, here is the installed capacity of the world’s three largest solar power plants, also as of 2021:
- Bhadla Solar Park, India: 2.2 GW
- Hainan Solar Park, China: 2.2 GW
- Pavagada Solar Park, India: 2.1 GW
Compared to our largest dams, solar plants have a much lower installed capacity. However, in terms of cost ( cents per kilowatt-hour ), the two are actually quite even.
Closer Look: Three Gorges Dam
The Three Gorges Dam is an engineering marvel, costing over $32 billion to construct. To wrap your head around its massive scale, consider the following facts:
- The Three Gorges Reservoir (which feeds the dam) contains 39 trillion kg of water (42 billion tons)
- In terms of area, the reservoir spans 400 square miles (1,045 square km)
- The mass of this reservoir is large enough to slow the Earth’s rotation by 0.06 microseconds
Of course, any man-made structure this large is bound to have a profound impact on the environment. In a 2010 study , it was found that the dam has triggered over 3,000 earthquakes and landslides since 2003.
The Consequences of Hydroelectric Dams
While hydropower can be cost-effective, there are some legitimate concerns about its long-term sustainability.
For starters, hydroelectric dams require large upstream reservoirs to ensure a consistent supply of water. Flooding new areas of land can disrupt wildlife, degrade water quality, and even cause natural disasters like earthquakes.
Dams can also disrupt the natural flow of rivers. Other studies have found that millions of people living downstream from large dams suffer from food insecurity and flooding.
Whereas the benefits have generally been delivered to urban centers or industrial-scale agricultural developments, river-dependent populations located downstream of dams have experienced a difficult upheaval of their livelihoods.
– Richter, B.D. et al. (2010)
Perhaps the greatest risk to hydropower is climate change itself. For example, due to the rising frequency of droughts, hydroelectric dams in places like California are becoming significantly less economical .
Map: Oil and Gas Spills in the U.S. Since 2010
Oil and gas spills can be messy, but where are they most likely to occur? This graphic looks at oil and gas spills in the U.S. since 2010.
Mapped: Oil and Gas Spills in the U.S. Since 2010
The recent energy crisis has highlighted the integral role that hydrocarbons play in fueling the modern world, but these fossil fuels still come with their fair share of downsides.
Aside from the obvious climate impact they bring, one other downside in particular is spills, which can lead to ecological and economic damage. These can happen due to pipeline leaks, train derailments , or other industrial disasters.
This graphic from Preyash Shah provides a visual overview of every oil and gas spill in the contiguous U.S. since 2010. Data is tracked by the U.S. government’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).
U.S. Oil and Gas Spills (2010‒2022)
The majority of spills that have occurred come mostly from crude oil , followed by petroleum products and gas. Note that this data covers the quantity of spills and not damages or volume.
|Spills by Product Type||Portion of all U.S. Spills|
|Highly volatile liquids & flammable gas||16%|
|Liquefied petroleum gas / natural gas liquids||8%|
|Other highly volatile liquids||6%|
Crude oil, which makes up just over half of documented spills, is also one of the most costly. Contaminations can persist for years after a spill, and its impact on local mammals and waterfowl is particularly harsh.
This has been the case with the Deepwater Horizon spill (also known as the “BP oil spill”), which experts say is still causing harm in the Gulf of Mexico.
Other products with lots of spills include petroleum products such as diesel or gasoline, as well as liquefied natural gas or other volatile liquids. Interestingly, liquefied carbon dioxide can also be transported in pipelines , commonly used for carbon capture storage, but requires high pressure to maintain its state.
When looking at the location of spills, it’s clear that the South Central states have experienced the highest number of disasters. In contrast, the West Coast has had substantially less activity. However, this makes much more sense when looking at the dominant oil producing states , where Texas and surrounding neighbors reign supreme.
|Rank||State||Oil & Gas Spills (2010-2022)|
Of the 4,901 spills during this period, Texas accounts for 1,936 or roughly 40% of all oil and gas spills . This is followed by Oklahoma, which has had 407 spills and is one of the largest net exporters of oil and gas in the country.
What Causes Spills?
Oil and gas spills actually have a surprisingly long history, with one of the earliest dating back to 1889 , when a spill was reported on the coast between Los Angeles and San Diego.
Causes have consisted primarily of weather, natural disasters, equipment and technological malfunction, as well as human error.
However, they only became a widespread problem around the halfway mark of the 20th century, when petroleum extraction and production really began to take off. This era also saw the emergence of supertankers, which can transport half a million tons of oil but therefore make the risk of spills even costlier.
In fact, the biggest spill off U.S. waters after the Deepwater Horizon disaster is the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, when a tanker crashed into a reef and 11 million gallons of oil spilled into the Pacific Ocean.
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