Electricity generation

Electricity generation is the process of generating electric power from sources of primary energy. For utilities in the electric power industry, it is the stage prior to its delivery (transmission, distribution, etc.) to end users or its storage (using, for example, the pumped-storage method).

Turbo generator
Diagram of an electric power system, generation system in red

Electricity is not freely available in nature, so it must be "produced" (that is, transforming other forms of energy to electricity). Production is carried out in power stations (also called "power plants"). Electricity is most often generated at a power plant by electromechanical generators, primarily driven by heat engines fueled by combustion or nuclear fission but also by other means such as the kinetic energy of flowing water and wind. Other energy sources include solar photovoltaics and geothermal power.


Past costs of producing renewable energy have declined significantly, with 62% of total renewable power generation added in 2020 having lower costs than the cheapest new fossil fuel option.[1]
Levelized cost: With increasingly widespread implementation of renewable energy sources, costs for renewables have declined, most notably for energy generated by solar panels.[2]
Levelized cost of energy (LCOE) is a measure of the average net present cost of electricity generation for a generating plant over its lifetime.
Dynamos and engine installed at Edison General Electric Company, New York 1895

The fundamental principles of electricity generation were discovered in the 1820s and early 1830s by British scientist Michael Faraday. His method, still used today, is for electricity to be generated by the movement of a loop of wire, or Faraday disc, between the poles of a magnet. Central power stations became economically practical with the development of alternating current (AC) power transmission, using power transformers to transmit power at high voltage and with low loss.

Commercial electricity production started in 1873 with the coupling of the dynamo to the hydraulic turbine. The mechanical production of electric power began the Second Industrial Revolution and made possible several inventions using electricity, with the major contributors being Thomas Alva Edison and Nikola Tesla. Previously the only way to produce electricity was by chemical reactions or using battery cells, and the only practical use of electricity was for the telegraph.

Electricity generation at central power stations started in 1882, when a steam engine driving a dynamo at Pearl Street Station produced a DC current that powered public lighting on Pearl Street, New York. The new technology was quickly adopted by many cities around the world, which adapted their gas-fueled street lights to electric power. Soon after electric lights would be used in public buildings, in businesses, and to power public transport, such as trams and trains.

The first power plants used water power or coal.[3] Today a variety of energy sources are used, such as coal, nuclear, natural gas, hydroelectric, wind, and oil, as well as solar energy, tidal power, and geothermal sources.

Methods of generation

World electricity generation by source in 2018. Total generation was 26.7 PWh.[4]

  Coal (38%)
  Natural gas (23%)
  Hydro (16%)
  Nuclear (10%)
  Wind (5%)
  Oil (3%)
  Solar (2%)
  Biofuels (2%)
  Other (1%)

Several fundamental methods exist to convert other forms of energy into electrical energy. Utility-scale generation is achieved by rotating electric generators or by photovoltaic systems. A small proportion of electric power distributed by utilities is provided by batteries. Other forms of electricity generation used in niche applications include the triboelectric effect, the piezoelectric effect, the thermoelectric effect, and betavoltaics.


Wind turbines usually provide electrical generation in conjunction with other methods of producing power.

Electric generators transform kinetic energy into electricity. This is the most used form for generating electricity and is based on Faraday's law. It can be seen experimentally by rotating a magnet within closed loops of conducting material (e.g. copper wire). Almost all commercial electrical generation is done using electromagnetic induction, in which mechanical energy forces a generator to rotate:


Large dams, such as Hoover Dam in the United States, can provide large amounts of hydroelectric power. It has an installed capacity of 2.07 GW.

Electrochemistry is the direct transformation of chemical energy into electricity, as in a battery. Electrochemical electricity generation is important in portable and mobile applications. Currently, most electrochemical power comes from batteries.[5] Primary cells, such as the common zinc–carbon batteries, act as power sources directly, but secondary cells (i.e. rechargeable batteries) are used for storage systems rather than primary generation systems. Open electrochemical systems, known as fuel cells, can be used to extract power either from natural fuels or from synthesized fuels. Osmotic power is a possibility at places where salt and fresh water merge.

Photovoltaic effect

The photovoltaic effect is the transformation of light into electrical energy, as in solar cells. Photovoltaic panels convert sunlight directly to DC electricity. Power inverters can then convert that to AC electricity if needed. Although sunlight is free and abundant, solar power electricity is still usually more expensive to produce than large-scale mechanically generated power due to the cost of the panels. Low-efficiency silicon solar cells have been decreasing in cost and multijunction cells with close to 30% conversion efficiency are now commercially available. Over 40% efficiency has been demonstrated in experimental systems.[6] Until recently, photovoltaics were most commonly used in remote sites where there is no access to a commercial power grid, or as a supplemental electricity source for individual homes and businesses. Recent advances in manufacturing efficiency and photovoltaic technology, combined with subsidies driven by environmental concerns, have dramatically accelerated the deployment of solar panels. Installed capacity is growing by 40% per year led by increases in Germany, Japan, United States, China, and India.


The selection of electricity production modes and their economic viability varies in accordance with demand and region. The economics vary considerably around the world, resulting in widespread residential selling prices, e.g. the price in Iceland is 5.54 cents per kWh while in some island nations it is 40 cents per kWh. Hydroelectric plants, nuclear power plants, thermal power plants and renewable sources have their own pros and cons, and selection is based upon the local power requirement and the fluctuations in demand. All power grids have varying loads on them but the daily minimum is the base load, often supplied by plants which run continuously. Nuclear, coal, oil, gas and some hydro plants can supply base load. If well construction costs for natural gas are below $10 per MWh, generating electricity from natural gas is cheaper than generating power by burning coal.[7]

Thermal energy may be economical in areas of high industrial density, as the high demand cannot be met by local renewable sources. The effect of localized pollution is also minimized as industries are usually located away from residential areas. These plants can also withstand variation in load and consumption by adding more units or temporarily decreasing the production of some units. Nuclear power plants can produce a huge amount of power from a single unit. However, nuclear disasters have raised concerns over the safety of nuclear power, and the capital cost of nuclear plants is very high. Hydroelectric power plants are located in areas where the potential energy from falling water can be harnessed for moving turbines and the generation of power. It may not be an economically viable single source of production where the ability to store the flow of water is limited and the load varies too much during the annual production cycle.

Due to advancements in technology, and with mass production, renewable sources other than hydroelectricity (solar power, wind energy, tidal power, etc.) experienced decreases in cost of production, and the energy is now in many cases as expensive or less expensive than fossil fuels.[8] Many governments around the world provide subsidies to offset the higher cost of any new power production, and to make the installation of renewable energy systems economically feasible.

Generating equipment

A large generator with the rotor removed

Electric generators were known in simple forms from the discovery of electromagnetic induction in the 1830s. In general, some form of prime mover such as an engine or the turbines described above, drives a rotating magnetic field past stationary coils of wire thereby turning mechanical energy into electricity.[9] The only commercial scale electricity production that does not employ a generator is solar PV.


Large dams such as Three Gorges Dam in China can provide large amounts of hydroelectric power; it has a 22.5 GW capability.

Almost all commercial electrical power on Earth is generated with a turbine, driven by wind, water, steam or burning gas. The turbine drives a generator, thus transforming its mechanical energy into electrical energy by electromagnetic induction. There are many different methods of developing mechanical energy, including heat engines, hydro, wind and tidal power. Most electric generation is driven by heat engines. The combustion of fossil fuels supplies most of the energy to these engines, with a significant fraction from nuclear fission and some from renewable sources. The modern steam turbine (invented by Sir Charles Parsons in 1884) currently generates about 80% of the electric power in the world using a variety of heat sources. Turbine types include:

  • Steam
  • Natural gas: turbines are driven directly by gases produced by combustion. Combined cycle are driven by both steam and natural gas. They generate power by burning natural gas in a gas turbine and use residual heat to generate steam. At least 20% of the world's electricity is generated by natural gas.
  • Water Energy is captured by a water turbine from the movement of water - from falling water, the rise and fall of tides or ocean thermal currents (see ocean thermal energy conversion). Currently, hydroelectric plants provide approximately 16% of the world's electricity.
  • The windmill was a very early wind turbine. In 2018 around 5% of the world's electricity was produced from wind.

Although turbines are most common in commercial power generation, smaller generators can be powered by gasoline or diesel engines. These may used for backup generation or as a prime source of power within isolated villages.


Total worldwide gross production of electricity in 2016 was 25,082 TWh. Sources of electricity were coal and peat 38.3%, natural gas 23.1%, hydroelectric 16.6%, nuclear power 10.4%, oil 3.7%, solar/wind/geothermal/tidal/other 5.6%, biomass and waste 2.3%.[11]

Source of Electricity (World total year 2008)
Average electric power (TWh/year)8,2631,1114,3012,7313,28856820,261
Average electric power (GW)942.6126.7490.7311.6375.164.82311.4
data source IEA/OECD
Energy Flow of Power Plant

Total energy consumed at all power plants for the generation of electricity was 51,158 terawatt-hours (4,398,768 kilotonnes of oil equivalent) which was 36% of the total for primary energy sources (TPES) of 2008. Electricity output (gross) was 20,185 TWh (1,735,579 ktoe), efficiency was 39%, and the balance of 61% was generated heat. A small part, 1,688 TWh (145,141 ktoe) or about 3% of the input total, of the heat was utilized at co-generation heat and power plants. The in-house consumption of electricity and power transmission losses were 3,369 TWh (289,681 ktoe). The amount supplied to the final consumer was 16,809 TWh (1,445,285 ktoe) which was 33% of the total energy consumed at power plants and heat and power co-generation (CHP) plants.[12]

Historical results of production of electricity

Note that the vertical axes of these two charts are not to the same scale.

Production by country

The United States has long been the largest producer and consumer of electricity, with a global share in 2005 of at least 25%, followed by China, Japan, Russia, and India. In 2011, China overtook the United States to become the largest producer of electricity.

List of countries with source of electricity 2005

Data source of values (electric power generated) is IEA/OECD.[13] Listed countries are top 20 by population or top 20 by GDP (PPP) and Saudi Arabia based on CIA World Factbook 2009.[14]

Composition of Electricity by Resource (TWh per year 2008)
Country's electricity sector Fossil Fuel Nuclear rank Renewable Bio
total rank
Coal Oil Gas sub
rank Hydro Geo
Wind Tide sub
World total 8,2631,1114,30113,675-2,731-3,28865120.92190.53,584-27120,261-
Proportion 41%5.5%21%67%-13%-16%0.3%0.06%0.004%1.1%0.003%18%-1.3%100%-
China 2,73323312,7882688585-0.2-13-59812.43,4572
India 569348268551512114-0.02-14-128.0262.08305
USA 2,133581,0113,10118381282171.60.8856-3574734,3691
Indonesia 61432513019--128.3----2017-14920
Brazil 13182959231413370---0.6-3703204639
Pakistan 0.1323062221.61628-----2814-9224
Bangladesh 0.61.7313327--1.5-----1.529-3527
Nigeria -3.1121528--5.7-----5.725-2128
Russia 19716495708416341670.5--0.01-16752.51,0404
Japan 28813928371132583832.82.3-2.6-917221,0823
Mexico 2149131202139.814397.10.01-0.3-47120.825914
Philippines 164.9204026--9.8110.001-0.1-2116-6126
Vietnam 151.6304725--26-----2615-7325
Ethiopia -0.5-0.529--3.30.01----3.328-3.830
Egypt -269011520--15---0.9-1620-13122
Germany 2919.28838861486270.024.4-41-729296377
Turkey 587.59916416--330.16--0.85-34130.2219819
DR Congo -
Iran 0.43617320911--5.0---0.20-5.226-21517
Thailand 321.710213518--7.10.0020.003---7.1234.814721
France 275.8225524439268-0.04-5.70.517585.95758
UK 1276.1177310752109.3-0.02-7.1-16181138911
Italy 49311732539--475.50.2-4.9-58118.631912
South Korea 1921581288815155.6-0.3-0.4-6.3240.744610
Spain 50181221901459926-2.60.0232-61104.331413
Canada 1129.84116217947383-0.03-3.80.0338628.56516
Saudi Arabia -1168820412-----------20418
Taiwan 12514461861541117.8-0.004-0.6-8.4213.523816
Australia 1982.83923910--12-0.20.0043.9-16192.225715
Netherlands 272.16392214.2150.1-0.04-4.3-4.4276.810823
Country Coal Oil Gas sub
rank Nuclear rank Hydro Geo
Wind Tide sub
rank Bio
Total rank

Solar PV* is Photovoltaics Bio other* = 198 TWh (Biomass) + 69 TWh (Waste) + 4 TWh (other)

Environmental concerns

Variations between countries generating electrical power affect concerns about the environment. In France only 10% of electricity is generated from fossil fuels, the US is higher at 70% and China is at 80%.[13] The cleanliness of electricity depends on its source. Most scientists agree that emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gases from fossil fuel-based electricity generation account for a significant portion of world greenhouse gas emissions; in the United States, electricity generation accounts for nearly 40% of emissions, the largest of any source. Transportation emissions are close behind, contributing about one-third of U.S. production of carbon dioxide.[15] In the United States, fossil fuel combustion for electric power generation is responsible for 65% of all emissions of sulfur dioxide, the main component of acid rain.[16] Electricity generation is the fourth highest combined source of NOx, carbon monoxide, and particulate matter in the US.[17] In July 2011, the UK parliament tabled a motion that "levels of (carbon) emissions from nuclear power were approximately three times lower per kilowatt hour than those of solar, four times lower than clean coal and 36 times lower than conventional coal".[18]

Lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions by electricity source[19]
TechnologyDescription50th percentile
(g CO2/kWhe)
Nuclearvarious generation II reactor types16
Solar thermalparabolic trough22
Geothermalhot dry rock45
Solar PVPolycrystalline silicon46
Natural gasvarious combined cycle turbines without scrubbing469
Coalvarious generator types without scrubbing1001

See also

  • Generation expansion planning
  • Cogeneration: the use of a heat engine or power station to generate electricity and useful heat at the same time.
  • Diesel generator
  • Distributed generation
  • Electric power transmission
  • Engine-generator
  • Power station
  • World energy consumption: the total energy used by all of human civilization.


  1. "Majority of New Renewables Undercut Cheapest Fossil Fuel on Cost". IRENA.org. International Renewable Energy Agency. 22 June 2021. Archived from the original on 22 June 2021.Infographic (with numerical data) and archive thereof
  2. Chrobak, Ula (author); Chodosh, Sara (infographic) (28 January 2021). "Solar power got cheap. So why aren't we using it more?". Popular Science. Archived from the original on 29 January 2021. ● Chodosh's graphic is derived from data in "Lazard's Levelized Cost of Energy Version 14.0" (PDF). Lazard.com. Lazard. 19 October 2020. Archived (PDF) from the original on 28 January 2021.
  3. "Pearl Street Station - Engineering and Technology History Wiki". ethw.org. Retrieved 2016-08-14.
  4. "Electricity generation by source". International Energy Agency.
  5. World's Largest Utility Battery System Installed in Alaska (press release, 2003-09-24), U.S. Department of Energy. "13,670 nickel-cadmium battery cells to generate up to 40 megawatts of power for about 7 minutes, or 27 megawatts of power for 15 minutes."
  6. New World Record Achieved in Solar Cell Technology Archived 2007-04-23 at the Wayback Machine (press release, 2006-12-05), U.S. Department of Energy.
  7. Smith, Karl (22 March 2013). "Will Natural Gas Stay Cheap Enough To Replace Coal And Lower Us Carbon Emissions". Forbes. Retrieved 20 June 2015.
  8. "Chart of the day: Renewables are increasingly cheaper than coal". World Economic Forum. Retrieved 2020-08-26.
  9. Sedlazeck, K.; Richter, C.; Strack, S.; Lindholm, S.; Pipkin, J.; Fu, F.; Humphries, B.; Montgomery, L. (May 1, 2009). "Type testing a 2000 MW turbogenerator". 2009 IEEE International Electric Machines and Drives Conference. pp. 465–470. doi:10.1109/IEMDC.2009.5075247. ISBN 978-1-4244-4251-5. S2CID 9118902 via IEEE Xplore.
  10. "Coal & electricity". World Coal Association. 2015-04-29. Retrieved 2016-08-14.
  11. International Energy Agency, "Electricity Statistics", Retrieved 8 December 2018.
  12. International Energy Agency, "2008 Energy Balance for World", 2011.
  13. IEA Statistics and Balances retrieved 2011-5-8
  14. CIA World Factbook 2009 retrieved 2011-5-8
  15. Borenstein, Seth (2007-06-03). "Carbon-emissions culprit? Coal". The Seattle Times. Archived from the original on 2011-04-24.
  16. "Sulfur Dioxide". US Environmental Protection Agency.
  17. "AirData". US Environmental Protection Agency.
  18. "Early day motion 2061". UK Parliament. Retrieved 15 May 2015.
  19. http://srren.ipcc-wg3.de/report/IPCC_SRREN_Annex_II.pdf see page 10 Moomaw, W., P. Burgherr, G. Heath, M. Lenzen, J. Nyboer, A. Verbruggen, 2011: Annex II: Methodology. In IPCC Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation.
This article is issued from Wikipedia. The text is licensed under Creative Commons - Attribution - Sharealike. Additional terms may apply for the media files.