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For the vast majority of human history, the setting of the sun limited people’s ability to do work or enjoy leisure time. The Pearl Street Station featured six “jumbo” dynamo generators, each weighing 27 tons and supplying nearly 100 kilowatts of power (total output of about 600 kilowatts). Edison’s “central power plant” design was revolutionary—nothing like it had ever been built in the U.S.
As people demanded more and more electricity to power their lives—to operate appliances, lights, streetcars, and factories—the competition to satisfy that demand resulted in larger power plants that provided an enormous amount of electricity. Edison Electric’s Pearl Street Station (1882): 600 kilowatts—enough electricity to light 10,000 60-watt light bulbs. Brooklyn Edison’s Waterside Station (1901): 120 megawatts—enough electricity to light 2 million 60-watt light bulbs. Modern nuclear reactors and coal plants (1970s–present): 1,200 megawatts—enough electricity to light 20 million 60-watt light bulbs. Although the process at the generator is similar across the board, the sources of energy used to spin the turbines vary greatly.
Modern coal-fired power generation is essentially a much larger, more efficient, cleaner, and technologically more advanced version of the steam-turbine process Edison used. With nuclear power, steam is produced by heat released from a nuclear fission reaction (the uranium atom is split in a controlled process that emits a large amount of heat). Power plants are expensive to build, but once they are up and running, they can produce huge amounts of electricity at low costs.
Electricity demand is in constant flux, but it follows daily and seasonal patterns that electricity suppliers can anticipate. Hydroelectric plants are somewhat of a hybrid and can perform all of these functions if the plant has enough potential energy stored in water behind a dam.
All of these types of plants—low-cost baseload, flexible intermediate load, and peakers that operate on a premium—are critical to maintaining grid reliability by meeting demand at all times. The previous discussion of baseload, intermediate load, and peaking power plants did not include wind or solar power. Every week, for the sixth season of Game of Thrones, Christopher Orr, Spencer Kornhaber, and Lenika Cruz will be discussing new episodes of the HBO drama.
When his three children were young, Warren Buffett installed a dime slot machine on the third floor of the family’s house, in Omaha, Nebraska. The Texas senator and the Ohio governor team up against the Republican front-runner in three upcoming states. The Republicans are now going the way of the Whigs—by embracing the politics that helped destroy them. One hundred and sixty years after the founding of the Republican Party, Donald Trump has evoked Abraham Lincoln as a standard for his branding. From joy and attachment to anxiety and protectiveness, mothering behavior begins with biochemical reactions.
The artist Sarah Walker once told me that becoming a mother is like discovering the existence of a strange new room in the house where you already live. Because a lot of things do change, of course, but for new mothers, some of the starkest differences are also the most intimate ones—the emotional changes.
Even before a woman gives birth, pregnancy tinkers with the very structure of her brain, several neurologists told me. That race will be much shorter—a 73-day sprint to hand over control of the entire federal government from one administration to the next. For the last eight years, a collection of ex-government officials, good-governance advocates, and lawmakers in Congress have been working to improve presidential transitions. When people see themselves as self-made, they tend to be less generous and public-spirited.
Ithaca’s ambulances are dispatched from the other side of town, more than five miles away.
Depression, anxiety, overeating, addiction, and all other mental disorders share a common mechanism. We use electricity virtually every minute of every day, yet few of us know exactly how much or where it goes. Before we dive in, some perspective is useful: Although this breakdown varies from country to country, household electricity use generally makes up about a third of total electricity consumption in most developed nations.
So when we talk about household electricity use, it is worth remembering homes only account for about a third of total electricity use. But while there are huge differences in household electricity use around the world, we all tend to use electricity for similar kinds of activity.
Because both of these figures are based on national averages, they can be a little deceptive.


The average American home uses 11,700 kilowatt-hours each year, costing around $1,400 and causing about seven tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in emissions. This graph shows how much electricity the average American household used for different tasks in 2010. By separating electricity use into different end uses we can see where the major demand for electricity is in U.S.
Whether your home uses 2,000 or 10,000 kWh a year, there are simple ways you can save electricity in your home. Understanding how electricity is used can help prioritize opportunities to reduce it.
But before it is transmitted on high-voltage power lines and then distributed to our homes and businesses, it needs to be generated by a power plant.
Before electricity, people burned vegetable oil, wax, tallow, whale oil, kerosene, and gasified coal to light their homes and businesses. Four coal-fired burners provided the steam energy necessary to turn the massive turbines that ran the generators. Using a central power station separated the energy user from the energy source, making everything from lighting to motors safer to use as well as cleaner, quieter, and more efficient.
In 1901, Edison opened a plant in Brooklyn that was 20 times larger than the Pearl Street Station. In the system he built, coal-fired boilers heated water, which produced high-pressure steam, which turned a turbine, which powered a generator. The majority of the power in the United States comes from thermal generation—using heat to create high-pressure steam and drive turbines.[6] This is how coal, nuclear, and most natural gas plants produce electricity. Coal plants tend to keep about two months of fuel supply on-site, which limits any supply disruptions and makes them a reliable source of electricity. For example, in hydroelectric power plants, flowing water spins the turbines.[11] Hydroelectric power is generally as reliable as thermal power, especially when its energy source (water holding potential energy) is stored behind dams in large reservoirs. These large structures—typically 300 to 400 feet tall—rely on a steady wind to turn the turbine blades and produce electricity.[13] Unlike the sources discussed above, wind power is at the mercy of weather conditions that change minute-to-minute, leading to intermittent and unpredictable electricity output. Solar thermal power uses concentrated solar energy gathered by large arrays of mirrors to produce steam, which powers turbines in much the same way as other thermal generation. Second by second, they must match the supply at their disposal (generation from power plants) with the fluctuating demand for electricity (also called electric “load”).
Electricity has to be produced on demand because it is cost-prohibitive to store—huge batteries that have the capability to hold a power plant’s worth of electricity are technically feasible but incredibly expensive. In order to meet demand in different parts of the day, different types of electricity generators are required. These efficiently provide large amounts of reliable, inexpensive power but do not ramp up or down efficiently. These plants can ramp up electricity production pretty efficiently but are most efficient when they run for a number of hours.
These types of generation are all firm, meaning we can count on them to produce electricity when we need it. This is because wind and solar do not reliably provide baseload, intermediate, or peaking power. Because no screeners are being made available to critics in advance this year, we'll be posting our thoughts in installments. Buffett has spent most of his life as a farmer, with little financial support from his father—until recently. The objective was to convey the dangers of gambling, but it also meant the children’s allowance remained in his hands. I always liked Walker's description because it's more precise than the shorthand most people use for life with a newborn: Everything changes.
After centuries of observing behavioral changes in new mothers, scientists are only recently beginning to definitively link the way a woman acts with what's happening in her prefrontal cortex, midbrain, parietal lobes, and elsewhere.
Perhaps the most extreme example of my considerable good fortune occurred one chilly Ithaca morning in November 2007, while I was playing tennis with my longtime friend and collaborator, the Cornell psychologist Tom Gilovich. Total generation is typically 5 to 10 percent more than this total due to transmission and distribution losses.
If, for example, a home uses electricity as its primary source of energy for cooking, water heating, or heating, these uses will likely be more dominant. For example, the chart above shows that defrosting a freezer has limited potential, while switching to low-energy light bulbs or limiting air-conditioner use will have greater potential.
This page focuses on electricity generation—the creation of electricity from another energy source.
Electricity made it possible to have clean, safe, brilliant lighting without the hassle of burning fuels directly for light. In 2013, coal, natural gas, and nuclear power accounted for a combined 86 percent of total electricity generation in the U.S. A different type of hydroelectric power, called “run-of-the-river” hydro, runs turbines using river flow without a dam.


Photovoltaic solar panels are unique because they generate electricity directly from sunlight with no spinning turbines—no steam, rushing water, or wind. This concept is referred to as “economies of scale,” and it explains why today’s power generation industry operates at such a large size.
Electricity from existing nuclear, coal, and hydroelectric plants is inexpensive because in many cases the owners paid off the capital costs years ago. Because grid balancing is paramount—no one tolerates a blackout—steady generation paired with generation that can adjust its output to follow demand is an incredibly valuable combination.
Some of the most valuable sources of electricity are the generators that can be relied on during peak periods of electricity demand.
Although it can be difficult to match supply and demand second-by-second, it is far cheaper than using battery storage. It is difficult and inefficient to dramatically increase the electricity output from a coal or a nuclear plant. This is critical because the electricity grid needs to be kept in balance 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, no matter the weather and no matter how many people turn on their lights, their air conditioning, or their TVs. Instead of being able to control when wind and solar generation comes online, grid operators take intermittent electricity from wind and solar when the weather permits. The United States prides itself on a tradition of a peaceful transfer of power from one administration to the next, no matter the political party. By happenstance, just before I collapsed, ambulances had been dispatched to two separate auto accidents close to the tennis center.
For example, the energy stored in chemical bonds within coal can be released via combustion and used to drive steam turbines inside power plants or the kinetic energy of the wind can be used to spin a wind turbine.
When Thomas Edison opened the United States’s first central power plant in lower Manhattan on September 4, 1882, he permanently pushed back the darkness, creating a new world.[1] Edison’s new central power plant—the coal-powered Pearl Street Station—would become the prototype for the dawning power generation industry.
A single modern nuclear reactor produces 200 times as much power as Edison’s Pearl Street Station. The process of using motion to produce electric current—via electromagnetic induction—was discovered by British scientist Michael Faraday 1831.[5] By spinning magnets inside of copper coils, Faraday was able to generate a small but measurable electric current. Coal produces more electricity than any other source—in 2013, coal power accounted for over 39 percent of total electricity generation in the U.S.
Hydroelectric power is limited, however, by location—all hydro plants need a steady supply of water, and reservoirs require specific geographical conditions that simply do not exist in most areas of the country. Photovoltaic panels are made up of solid chemical compounds or elements called semiconductors, such as silicon, that can conduct electricity under certain conditions. It is also the main reason why electricity consumers typically do not generate their own electricity—and why power plants tend to operate for several decades. This is reflected in the map below, which shows the correlation between the use of coal for electricity and low retail rates. The sources of electricity generation that can provide reliable, on-demand power are the most valuable in terms of keeping the lights on.
They are called “baseload” plants, “intermediate load” plants (also called “load following” plants), and “peak load” plants (sometimes called “peakers”). The following chart shows that wind, on average, does not help keep the electricity grid in balance.
The answer: 47 percent of respondents said that either they would cover the expense by borrowing or selling something, or they would not be able to come up with the $400 at all. Since one of them involved no serious injuries, an ambulance was able to peel off and travel just a few hundred yards to me. The fundamentals of electricity generation (typically spinning magnets inside coils of wire) haven’t changed much over time, but the associated technologies have radically changed over time and are constantly evolving.
Modern power plants still use Faraday’s discovery, but they do so on a massive scale—the generators weigh several hundred tons and the current can power hundreds of thousands of homes.
The graphic below shows electricity demand throughout an average day, with the types of power plants that are used to meet demand throughout the day. On the most basic level, these changes, prompted by a flood of hormones during pregnancy and in the postpartum period, help attract a new mother to her baby. Politics also plays a large role and influences the types of fuels we use for electricity, and politics will continue to drive major changes in the future.




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