Electricity generation is, quite simply, the first step in a process that makes it possible for us to eventually consume electricity in our homes and businesses.
Scientist Michael Faraday discovered electricity generation in the early 1800’s. Faraday was an English scientist who specialized in electrochemistry and electromagnetism. Without much in the way of formal training, he managed to figure out that he could generate a direct current. This discovery is still very similar to the way that we generate electricity today.
The simplest way to describe the electricity generation process is that when you rapidly move a loop of wire or copper disk around both poles of a magnet, the result is a direct current or electricity.
Based on this simplified explanation, it is clear that with the right equipment, it is absolutely possible to generate power from your living room! However, this just isn’t practical. This is why energy companies and governing entities stepped in to make electricity available on a mass-produced scale. Today, our electricity is generated in power stations.
To generate enough electricity to provide power to all of the homes and businesses across the country, many power plants or stations have been constructed in many different states.
Examples of some of the largest power plants in America include:
- Palo Verde (Arizona)
- Braidwood (Illinois)
- Limerick (Pennsylvania)
- Grand Coulee Dam (Washington)
- South Texas Nuclear Generating Station (Texas)
- Oconee (South Carolina)
- Browns Ferry (Alabama)
- Scherer Power Plant (Georgia)
The purpose of each of these power plants is the same: to generate electricity.
Again, the way in which electricity is generated typically remains the same (wire + magnet + spinning motion = electricity), just at a much larger scale. In order to achieve this continuous motion on a grand scale and for significant lengths of time, the majority of power plants use turbine technologies.
Electricity Generation – Turbines
Turbines are large pieces of equipment that spin extremely fast. Inside the turbine is the wire and magnet. As the turbine spins, so does the wire, around and around the two poles of the magnet. This is what generates the electricity, which then moves out of the turbine via the wires that connect through the base.
When it comes to electricity generation, there are three major turbine types:
Steam Turbines: These turbines require thermal energy extraction from a fuel source. This thermal energy is used to generate steam, which turns the turbine and generated electricity.
Gas Turbines: The gas is ignited or lit on fire. This produces a pressure, which turns the turbine. In some cases, the gas is used to heat water and generate steam. In these cases, steam is what then turns the turbine and generates the electricity.
Nuclear Turbines: This type of turbine requires a much more complicated and dangerous process (relatively speaking). Fission through the splitting of uranium atom generates the pressure required to turn the turbines.
Fuels Used to Spin the Turbines
As mentioned above, power plants require massive amounts of fuel to get the turbines to move (in addition to other generation methods). The United States uses many different types of fuels. Some of these fuels are renewable energy sources, meaning that they are produced naturally, and will never run out. Renewable sources include, power generated from the sun, water or wind. Other fuels are non-renewable resources. To obtain these types of fuels, we typically have to dig deep into the ground to find pockets of fossil fuels, also known as oil and natural gas. More examples of renewable and non-renewable fuels include,
Non-Renewable Fuel Types:
- Natural Gas
Renewable Fuel Types:
- Hydropower (Dams)
- Biomass (wood, animal waste, etc.)
- Geothermal (heat from the earth)
Commercial Generators vs. Turbines
There are many smaller scale, electricity generators on the market. These types of generators are used by many businesses and a few homes in case the power goes out due to storms, for example.
It is important to note that these tools are very different from turbines and the electricity generation done in power plants. Instead of generating power via wires spinning around a magnet, these generators work more like car engines. They typically use an alternator, which generates an alternating current (AC).
United States Electricity Generation by Source
According to the United States Energy Information Administration (EIA), in 2016, America generated approximately 4 trillion kWh of electricity. It is estimated that fossil fuels like, natural gas, petroleum and coal, generated 65% of the electricity. Nuclear energy generated around 20% and renewable energy sources generated the remaining 15%.
The top three fuels used in electricity generation in the United States for 2016 (according to EIA) were:
- Natural gas = 33.8%
- Coal = 30.4%
- Nuclear = 19.7%
Renewable fuels follow closely behind, with general renewables taking the number one spot, followed by hydropower and then wind.
- Renewables = 14.9%
- Hydropower = 6.5%
- Wind = 5.6%
- Biomass = 1.5%
- Solar = 0.9%
- Geothermal = 0.4%
The remaining sources of electricity generation include,
- Petroleum = 0.6%
- Other gases = 0.3%
- Other non-renewable sources = 0.3%
- Pumped storage hydroelectricity = -0.2%4
Electricity Generation vs. Electricity Generation Capacity
When it comes to electricity, there are a number of terms that are used to describe different elements of the electric generation process. Two terms that are most often confused include, electricity generation and electric generation capacity.
Electricity generation capacity is a term used to describe the total amount of electricity a turbine or electric generation source can generate.
Electricity generation is a term used to describe the amount of electricity that turbine or electric generation source can produce over a defined period of time.
Electricity Generation – Impacts on Rates
There are many different factors that have an impact on the rates that we pay for electricity. One of the factors does have to do with electricity generation.
Power plants require a significant amount of maintenance and repair over the course of its life. Both repair and maintenance are critical to power plants as their equipment needs to work well at all times. This of course prevents employee injury and promotes public safety.
In addition to maintenance and repair, power plants also have to consider the cost of the fuels that they require to generate electricity. If the cost of natural gas or coal is high, those rates are going to be reflected in the wholesale price of the electricity that is generated.
According to the EIA’s annual outlook, in 2015 electricity rates were determined by three major factors:
- Generation = 62%
- Transmission = 28%
- Distribution = 10%
As you can see, electricity generation has the greatest impact on the cost of energy for consumers.
Electricity Generation and Utilities
For utilities, electricity generation is a necessity. It is the very first step in their business process, as without it, they have no way to deliver electricity to residential or commercial consumers. In a regulated market, utilities are responsible for the transmission, delivery and maintenance of electricity– in addition to generation.
In an energy deregulated market, utilities are required to break out the supply and related customer service elements of electricity sales. This generates competition in the market. Instead of having the utility handling all elements of the process, customers have the option to choose an electricity provider. Electricity providers are incentivized to keep their products and services reasonably priced and current because a consumer can switch to a different electricity provider at any time.
In this scenario, utilities remain responsible for all other elements of the electricity process. This also means they remain responsible for electricity generation.
Electricity Generation by State
In 2015, the United States electricity utilities generated a total of, 2,315,322,594 megawatt hours of electricity. The following is a breakdown of how much electricity electric utilities generated by state. These numbers are gathered by EIA and are based off of the total energy generated (in megawatt hours) by electric utilities in 2015.
Washington D.C.: N/A
New Hampshire: 1,694,535
New Jersey: -24,188
New Mexico: 25,950,771
New York: 34,681,959
North Carolina: 119,073,672
North Dakota: 33,105,902
Rhode Island: 11,539
South Carolina: 92,411,853
South Dakota: 7,966,158
West Virginia: 57,042,502
The Future of Electricity Generation
Many states across America are making great strides towards using more electricity generated from renewable resources. Many of the non-renewable fuels used to generate power also generate carbon emissions, which isn’t that great for the environment. This means that in the next few years, we could see an increase in both wind and solar generated electricity for both residential and commercial consumers.
The bottom line is that electricity generation isn’t something that is going to go away any time soon. It’s a mandatory process in how electricity is delivered into the hands of the consumer. This means that power plants, turbines and advancements in electricity generation technologies are going to see continued growth within the industry and over the long-term.