The beginning of hydropower history dates back to water wheels that used the energy of flowing water to generate mechanical power. In Europe, they have been used since the first century AD. Lithuanian water wheels that operate on the hydroenergy principle are first mentioned in the 13th-century Livonian Chronicle. Over time, their numbers grew, as evidenced by the introduction of a mill tax. The expansion of water mills was linked to the construction of dams and reservoirs. In the 17th century, a relatively large dam was built in Biržai, creating the Širvėna lake, which protected Biržai castle and supplied water for the water wheels.
The use of water for electricity generation began in 1878 in Kretinga, at the estate of Count Juozapas Tiškevičius, known for his love of innovations, as stated in Julius Kanarskas’ monograph “Kretinga. Unfolding the Pages of the Past”. Meanwhile, the VI volume of “Lithuanian Energy” mentions the context of the 1890s. The first hydropower plant wasn’t very powerful – initially, it only provided illumination for the buildings.
Around 1900, another hydropower plant was built in Žemaitija, in Sukančiai, on the Virvytė river, at the Tiškevičius estate. In 1903, a hydropower plant began operating at the Kairiškiai manor paper workshop, also on the Virvytė river. Around the same time, in Biržuvėnai, in a paper factory and power plant, water from the Virvytė river spun hydro turbines manufactured by Ryga’s Ferdinand Meyjer industrial facility. A few years later, in 1910, a water mill and power plant were built on the Šventoji river in Anykščiai, with the turbine manufactured by Juozas Vilnonis, one of the owners of the power plant. Unfortunately, the first hydropower plants haven’t survived to this day.
The first studies regarding the use of hydroenergy from the largest Lithuanian river, Nemunas, in the Birštonas bend area, began in 1909. A decade later, in 1921, a similar study was conducted for the second-largest river, Neris. The first hydropower plant projects on the Neris river even met modern environmental requirements, as they were with fish passages.
During 1918-1939, electrical and hydro-engineering experts nurtured great hopes of harnessing the power of Nemunas and Neris for electricity generation and at the same time improved navigation conditions. However, these projects weren’t implemented as the country was lagging behind in the electrification process. Due to the established electricity generation monopoly (foreign concessionaire requirements), electricity prices were sky-high, and the initiators of other electricity generation projects faced legal battles, even imprisonment.
In the 1940s, there were 640 hydropower companies with water wheels and hydro turbines with a total capacity of about 9,000 kW. Many hydropower plants were destroyed during World War II. In 1948, only 335 hydropower plants remained operational, and by 1958, that number dwindled to just 111.
Hydropower plants in Lithuania in 1939.
When Lithuania was part of the Soviet Union, the Nemunas river was again used for both hydropower and navigation. There were big plans for the entire river, and based on that, in 1959 the most powerful 100 MW Kaunas hydropower plant was built. In the 70s, the national hydropower plan regarding the Nemunas river was drastically changed, and there were serious considerations to build a massive hydropower plant in Birštonas. But that would have destroyed about two-thirds of the famous Punia forest. This idea had a lot of opponents, especially from intelligentsia and hydro engineers, so it didn’t happen. However, this huge hydropower project, which didn’t consider the environment, gave a bad reputation to all the hydropower plans for Nemunas river. Kruonis pumped storage plant was suggested as an alternative.
Hydropower plants in Lithuania in 1958.
Until the 1960s, numerous small hydropower plants were built, and later on, Lithuania kept the pace of electrification by putting up thermal power plants and the Ignalina nuclear power plant. After more powerful plants were built, the development of small hydropower plants came to a halt, and the ones that existed were closed down and left to deteriorate. By the 1990s, there were only twelve left in operation.
Now there are over 90 small hydropower plants, together with the Kauno Algirdo Brazausko hydropower plant (100 MW) and the Kruonis pumped storage plant (800 MW). Depending on the water levels, these hydropower plants can generate over 100 GWh of electricity per year.
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