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How Electricity Is Produced

Most electricity in the U.S. is generated using coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear energy, or hydropower. Some production is done with alternative and/or renewable fuels like geothermal energy, wind power, biomass, solar energy, or fuel cells.

The electricity you use may be generated from one or more of these methods. No matter which fuels produce the electricity you use, your lights shine, your radio plays, and your computer runs in the same way.


Hydroelectric plants use the power of falling water to turn the turbines that help generate electricity. Water stored behind a dam is released and directed through special tubes to flow against the blades of turbines and make them turn.

Fossil Fuels
Coal, oil, and natural gas are known as fossil fuels because they were formed from the fossilized remains of animals or plants that lived long ago. Long ago, even before the dinosaurs, these plants and animals died and settled to the bottom of lakes and oceans to be covered over by sand and mud. Over millions of years, the earth's pressure and heat converted their remains into coal, oil, and natural gas.


Coal is extracted from the ground at large mines. Natural gas and oil are obtained through wells drilled deep in the earth.

Most of the electricity used in the U.S. is generated from power plants that burn fossil fuels to heat water and make steam. The highly pressurized steam is directed at the blades of turbines to make them spin.

  Nuclear Power

Nuclear Power
Nuclear power plants use the heat from splitting atoms to convert water into the steam that turns turbines. These plants rely on uranium, a type of metal that must be mined from the ground and specially processed. Fuel rods containing uranium are placed next to each other in a machine called a nuclear reactor. The reactor causes the uranium atoms to split and in so doing, they release a tremendous amount of heat.

  Geothermal Power

Geothermal Energy
Steam (or hot water converted to steam) from under the ground is used to turn turbines.

Wind Power
The force of the wind is used to spin many small turbines. Most wind power is produced from wind farms—large groups of turbines located in consistently windy locations.

Biomass is organic matter, such as wood chips and bark left over when lumber is produced, and agricultural wastes. Biomass can be burned to heat water to make steam, which turns a turbine to make electricity. It can also be converted into a gas, which can be burned to do the same thing.

Solar Power

Solar Energy
Solar energy is generated without a turbine or electromagnet. Special panels of photovoltaic cells capture light from the sun and convert it directly into electricity. The electricity is stored in a battery.

Fuel Cells
Fuel cells produce electricity through a chemical reaction.


  Next: How Electricity Comes to You  

  Previous: What Is Electricity?  

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