Musings from the Coast » Blog Archive » How does the US produce electricity?
The answer is pretty straightforward, Coal, Liquid Petroleum, Petroleum Gases, Nuclear, Other, and Renewable (water, wind, sun, and biomass.) Of the renewable, water, or hydroelectric, is large enough to rate its own category. Some of you reading this are now rolling your eyes thinking “What does this all mean? It’s pretty simple really, despite the time and attention being focused on issues like air pollution, energy conservation, and foreign fuel dependence, we as a nation are failing to make progress. This chart from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory provides a simple clear way to understand how energy is used in the US. Energy sources are on the left side – solar, nuclear, hydro, wind, geothermal, natural gas, coal, biomass, petroleum. Energy users are broken in to four categories – residential, commercial, industrial, and transportation. The gray boxes on the right sum up the energy that was used and the energy that was lost (rejected). The width of the lines running from the various energy sources to their destination uses is proportional to the amount of energy used. As can be seen, the lion’s share of US energy consumption comes from fossil fuel sources (oil, coal, natural gas).
Zooming in to the transportation sector, we can see that most of that oil is used for personal vehicles (cars, light truck and SUVs). Any attempt to reduce our dependance on oil will require grappling with transportation in general, and personal transportation in particular.
Personal transportation is 4 to 10 times less efficient than public transportation (commuter rail, trains and buses).
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As the waterwheel began to spread across the world, people started to expand on new ideas on how to make the waterwheel better and more efficient.
At a pumped storage hydro plant, flowing water is used to make electricity and then stored in a lower pool. Pumped hydro is the most reliable energy storage system used by American electric utilities.
Once the electricity is produced, it must be delivered to where it is needed — our homes, schools, offices, factories, etc. Similar to the Southeastern Power Administration, the Southwest Power Administration was established by the secretary of interior in the 1940’s and operates within the Department of Energy. The two main reasons that these power administrations are able to sell electricity at such lower costs is due to the fact that there are no real fuel costs to speak of and their original financing for construction was set at rates of the 1930’s and 40’s. Different types of technology cost different amounts of capital and they output a different amount of power. The history of the evolution of hydroelectric power to where it is today, along with the mechanical technology involved in producing hydroelectric power has been discussed. Currently hydropower is the overwhelming leader in energy production by a renewable source other than nuclear energy in both the United States and throughout the world. In countries, such as Norway, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Brazil, hydroelectric plants account for over ninety percent of the country’s total power generation.
The United States currently has more than two thousand hydroelectric power plants which account for more than half of the country’s renewable energy sources.
In comparison Canadian hydroelectric energy production accounts for over sixty percent of total electrical power generated throughout the country.
Hydroelectric power plants can range in size from micro (six kilowatts to a hundred kilowatts) to small (a hundred kilowatts to thirty megawatts) to large (a few hundred megawatts to over ten gig watts). Hydroelectric power plants do not normally operate at full capacity during a complete year. As you can see hydroelectric power serves as an important part of the world and United State’s energy portfolio. Not only is there available unused capacity in hydroelectric power plants, there is also a wealth of power potential that has yet to be developed. For its study, the INL used a run-of-river model, which employs a penstock to direct water through a powerhouse and then back into streams without any impoundment of water.
The INL evaluated the likelihood of development based on land use and environmental sensitivities, prior development, site access, and load and transmission proximity, and only included those sites in its estimate that met all of the criteria. The majority of the identified feasible hydropower potential could be harnessed without constructing new dams and by using existing techniques and technologies developed over the long and extensive history of installing small hydroelectric plants in the U.S.
While solar energy may possess the greatest amount of potential energy, it has been demonstrated by the Idaho National Laboratory that hydropower also has great potential that has yet to be developed.
There are currently fourteen large scale hydroelectric facilities in production and numerous smaller ones.
The total additional estimated capacity added by these dams to the Chinese energy supply totals 46,350 MW.
One of the most advanced forms of hydroelectric power employed today is known as pumped-storage hydroelectricity. The process however is not as environmentally efficient as standard forms of hydroelectric energy. An analysis of the type of data displayed in this chart calculates that approximately 70% to 80% of the energy used to used in the pumping process to elevate the water is regained during the generation process.
A new use of this technique applies the pro’s of applied storage to the con’s of alternative energies such as wind and solar. Tidal power is a viable mean of generating electricity, although not widely used, the first plant had been online since 1966. Tidal energy, as mentioned, is extracted from the changes of water level within the earth’s oceans. The charts displayed demonstrate the fluctuations in the tide over the course of a twenty four hour period. Tidal power can be divided into three methods of generating; tidal stream generation, tidal barrage, and dynamic tidal power. A tidal stream generator is a machine, often much like a wind turbine, that extracts energy from the movement of the tide as the water flows past it.
These underwater turbines are not yet widely used so there is little information available on their environmental impacts, economic viability, rate of return, or energy output. A tidal barrage, unlike the turbine systems of tidal stream generation, is a structure similar to that of a dam.
The reality of the situation is that in 1992 about 70% of our power was generated using fossil fuels, about 20% was generated using nuclear fuels, about 8% was generated using hydro, and everything else accounted for the remaining 2%. One might think that things have changed a great deal, but that’s not really the case.
Meanwhile, despite the fact that absolute PWhs increased for nuclear, hydro, and other renewables, the growth rate was insufficient to stave off a relative percentage share drop for each of these fuels with a relative change of -4% for nuclear fuel share, -21% for hyrdo fuel share, and -5% for other renewables. It’s hard to say that increasing our dependence on fossil fuels from 70% to 72% shows a trend in the right direction to help meet any of these challenges.
Of the fossil fuels, oil is the source most in demand, the bulk of which is used by the transportation sector. When oil prices rise quickly, as they did in 2008 (to over $140 per barrel), consumer behavior shifts rapidly. When it was discovered that hydropower could produce electricity, it was a very big innovation.
Some power plants are located right on a river or canals but for the plants to work at optimum efficiency with a reliable water supply, dams are needed. Depending on how much electricity is needed, the water may be pumped back to an upper pool. Dams are often in remote locations and power must be transmitted over some distance to its users.
On average it costs about seven cents per kilowatt-hour to produce electricity from a hydroelectric plant.
Department of Energy, however, it is self funding and is able to take care of its costs by selling its products and services at cost.
These administrations have been able to pay interest rates below the market even for the very few new construction or upgrades that take place nowadays.
For simplicity, overnight costs do not include interest or inflation and assume the project was constructed overnight. Levelized costs represent the present value of the total cost of building and operating a generating plant over its financial life, converted to equal annual payments and amortized over expected annual generation from an assumed duty cycle.
Levelized costs have been calculated to show how the costs of the generation of hydropower compare to other forms of energy.
Hydroelectricity is accounting for around twenty four percent of the world’s electricity generation at three thousand TWh’s supplied per year. China, Canada and Brazil are the only countries producing more hydroelectric power than the United States.
The following table shows how the net generation of hydroelectric power through August of 2010 compares to net generation through August of 2009. Therefore the annual hydroelectric production is not a true representation of what the producing plant or country is capable of. Some countries such as Norway, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Brazil are very dependent upon their hydroelectric power.
The Idaho National Laboratory (INL) did extensive research that led to the issuance of a very informative report.
For the addition of powerhouses to existing dams and for adding capacity to existing hydropower operations, the INL considered an assortment of current turbine technologies. One concept to keep in mind is that with the emergence of new technology there may be advances in tidal hydropower derived from tides, waves and ocean currents.
As we know, the capabilities of hydroelectric power have been maxed out here in the United States, however this is not the case in most other countries. These projects are scheduled to be completed over the course of 2012 to 2022 and are located in China, India, Venezuela and Berma, with the majority located in China. These projects are the Xiluodu Dam, Xiangjiaba Dam, Nuozhadu Dam, Jinping 2 Hydropower Station, Jinping 1 Hydropower Station, Guanyinyan Dam, Lianghekou Dam, Dagangshan, Guandi Dam, and the Ludila Dam. This is no surprise considering China is already the largest producer of hydroelectric power in the world, with an annual production of 652.05 TWh annually, as of 2009.

Power plants use this for load balancing, which refers the ability of the plants to store excess electrical power during low demand periods for use in the periods of high demand. The pumping process requires a substantial amount of energy, more infact than is generated by the production process. Unlike other forms of energy such as wind and solar, that struggle with energy storage, pumped-storage is an effective means of storing energy for later use. One of the main difficulties with these forms of energy is the variability in their production, or intermittent energy production.
When looking for a new form of hydroelectric, it makes sense to look towards the largest supplies of water on the planet, our oceans.
The difficulties with tidal energy are the same as with most forms of alternative energy, there is a relatively high cost associated with generating the energy, and there are only a few states with enough shoreline that has high enough tidal activity.
These fluctuations are caused mainly by the gravitational relationship between the earth and the moon, as well as the earth and the sun. Three distinct types of tides are displayed; the semidiurnal tide, mixed tide, and diurnal tide. Of the three main forms of tidal generation, tidal stream generator machines are the least damaging the natural environment as well as the cheapest. The function of a tidal barrage is to capture the energy of the water flowing in or out of a bay or river.
This also uses a structure similar to that of a dam, one that extends from the shore directly into the ocean, with a perpendicular barrier on the tip.
Wave technology is not widely employed in the world today, although some attempts have been made. Gas does have some advantages in that power plants can be constructed for around $800,000 per MW of generation and does burn significantly cleaner than the cleanest coal technologies. There is an opportunity in front of us to grab hold of renewable energy and related technologies to change these observed trends such that the numbers are different in 10 years time. Understanding the energy trends shaping our world is essential to managing risk and innovating solutions for business, government and community. Since the idea had been thought of, the wheel had always been placed in a river or stream vertically, turning from top to bottom.
The thought of generating electricity from simply running water through a turbine was once a dream to most scientist and people.
The first step of hydropower is the powers the hydrologic cycle which in turns gives the earth its water. Dams are used to store water and later release it for purposes such as irrigation, domestic and industrial use, and power generation. Pumping water to the upper pool requires electricity so hydro plants usually use pumped storage systems only when there is peak demand for electricity.
Vast networks of transmission lines and facilities are used to bring electricity to us in a form we can use. Today, these power plants generally range from several hundred kilowatts to several hundred megawatts. Modern hydroelectric turbines can convert as much as 90% of the available energy into electricity. The ownership and distribution of electricity is owned by various power marketing administrations. Similar to BPA, the Southeastern Power Administration deals with federal hydro projects, and their main mission is to market the hydroelectric power at the lowest cost to its customers. Army Corps of Engineers also maintains and operates a series of about 24 dams in the Southwest U.S.
Technologies such as solar energy typically have high levelized costs due to the necessary high capital costs to build the technology and the relatively low output of electricity. The following is a look at the current energy output throughout the world and in the United States by way of hydroelectric power generation.
Its share of the renewable energy production throughout the world is around sixty to seventy percent (see pie chart below). Despite being a leader in hydroelectric power generation, proportionally the United States hydroelectric power only accounts for nearly six percent of the total electrical power generated within the borders. The Pacific coast makes up for half of the hydroelectric power generation in the United States.
In order to include excess capacity, the sum of all generator nameplate power ratings (installed capacity) must be multiplied times the total time period and compared against the actual annual power generated. Hydro power and nuclear energy are leading the way for the implementation of renewable energy as a future energy source. The report titled, Feasibility Assessment of the Water Energy Resources of the United States for New Low Power and Small Hydro Classes of Hydroelectric Plants, was issued in 2006 detailing the availability of opportunities across the United States to increase hydroelectric power generation dramatically.
Currently many large hydroelectric power plants are under construction and it seems that many more will come.
There are a range of large scale hydro electric construction projects in the works in the developing industrial nations. The largest of these projects is the Xiouodu Dam, with an estimated maximum capacity of 12,600 MW. The method of pumped storage hydroelectricity stores energy in the form of the water itself. The process is actually a net consumer of energy, the benefit is that the system increases revenues for the facility by producing and selling its energy during the peak periods.
Pumped storage allows for the energy produced by intermittent sources that falls in times of high output but low demand to run the pumps that elevate the water for hydroelectric production, essentially storing the energy for peak consumption periods.
Scientists are looking to harness the energy contained within the tides and the waves of our oceans. It is believed however that new advances in the design of tidal hydroelectric plants coupled with advances in turbine technology could allow tidal power to one day become a cost effective energy source. The three main types of turbines are displayed below, with the “Modern HAWT” being the most widely used. A conventional dam dams the water on one side, and then allows it to flow through turbines generating electricity. This forms a large “T” structure that is meant to interfere with the oscillating waves of the tides in order to create hydraulic currents. Wave power technologies are categorized by either their location, or their power take-off system.
A recent study by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory calculated that increasing that share to 20 percent by 2030 would lower U.S. People had the idea of putting the wheel into the water horizontally, turning from left to right. The waters force on the turbine blades turns the rotor, the moving part of the electric generator. It is the distance from the highest level of the dammed water to the point where it goes through the power-producing turbine.
They also have no way to store any extra energy they might produce during normal generating periods. All the electricity made at a powerplant comes first through transformers which raise the voltage so it can travel long distances through powerlines.
However, in the instance that a hydroelectric power plant is providing electricity to millions of people, it can reach capacities of tens of thousand megawatts. The role of these administrations is to market hydroelectric power at the lowest possible rates to consumers while adhering to sound business principles.
Unlike BPA however, they do not have their own transmission lines and must cooperate with other utilities or “wheeling” services to get the electricity to its customers. Rural electric cooperatives and municipal utilities is where most of the power generated is marketed and delivered to. The levelized cost of hydroelectric however is relatively low due to the amount of electricity that the technology produces relative to the capital costs. This ratio, known as the capacity factor, can be used to rank hydroelectric capacity when annual hydroelectric production is not descriptive enough. While other renewable sources of energy continue to grow with increased technology, hydro power will continue to be very influential into the future.
The remaining 60 percent of over 170,000 MWa have not been developed and are not restricted from development based on information sources used in the assessment. The true future of hydroelectric power worldwide depends on the abilities of scientists to make technological breakthroughs.
The dam is scheduled to be complete in 2015, but construction has been temporarily halted due to a lack of studies detailing the environmental impact. During the periods of low cost off peak electricity consumption, electricity is used to run pumps that pump water from a low elevation reservoir to a higher elevation. The following chart displays energy consumed and produced at a pumped-storage plant facility during an average 24 hour period. All graphs are displayed with time on the x-axis (24 hours), and variance in total height (measured in feet) from the standard level on the y-axis.
A tidal barrage allows the water to flow through during the periods of high tide, and then traps it. Commuters embraced public transportation, with many metropolitan areas seeing 30 to 45 percent increases in use of public transportation in just one quarter. The waterwheel would be placed in a stream or river, and as the water would run down the stream or river, the waterwheel would in turn rotate. Some of the water evaporates, but most of the water is absorbed by the ground and becomes surface runoff. The turbine turns the generator rotor which then converts this mechanical energy into another energy form — electricity. When coils of wire on the rotor sweep past the generator=s stationary coil (stator), electricity is produced.
Flow is how much water moves through the system—the more water that moves through a system, the higher the flow.
At local substations, transformers reduce the voltage so electricity can be divided up and directed throughout an area. Today, the world’s hydroelectric plants have a total capacity of 675,000 megawatts that produce over 2.3 trillion kilowatt-hours of energy per year.
The seven cent per kilowatt hour that hydroelectric power costs is about one-third the cost of using Petroleum or nuclear and one-sixth the cost of using natural gas.

These administrations are the Bonneville Power Administration, Southeastern Power Administration, Southwestern Power Administration, and the Western Area Power Administration. Roughly one third of the electrical power utilized in the Northwest is provided by the Bonneville Power Administration.
Similar to Southeast, Southwest markets to what they call “preference” customers that in turn distribute electricity to millions of end users. Army Corp of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation, they are also operated by the International boundary and water commission. The list for hydroelectric subsidies for the fiscal year 2007 can be observed in the Federal Financial Interventions and Subsidies in Energy Markets Report.
These characteristics are shown in the table below for the top seven hydroelectric producers as of 2009. Currently there are large amounts of energy coming from hydropower plants and it seems that the hydroelectricity production will only continue to grow since there is excess capacity available.
Of this potential, it was found that nearly 100,000 MWa of gross power potential could feasibly be developed. They are large enough to exert force the horizontal tide movement, creating a head the flows over both sides of the dam. There are six types of power take-off systems including; hydraulic ram, elastomeric hose pump, pump-to-shore, hydroelectric turbine, air turbine, and linear electrical generator. Cogeneration is often called combined heat and power (CHP), since most cogeneration systems are used to supply electricity and useful heat.
The rotating wheel would then turn, therefore turning the gears that would grind the grains. Two other break through thoughts that were proved to be more efficient were curved paddles and the breasted position (where the center of the wheel lies on the water surface). Water from rain and melting snow eventually reaches ponds, lakes, reservoirs, and oceans where evaporation is constantly occurring. Since water is the initial source of energy, we call this hydroelectric power or hydropower for short. The turbine is probably the most important part of the hydropower process next to the actual water. Generally, a high-head plant needs less water flow than a low-head plant to produce the same amount of electricity. This is true as long as the cost for removing the dam and repairs for silt build up are not included.
This feasible potential corresponds to nearly 130,000 potential low-power and small hydro projects. This allows energy to be generated during both halves of the flow process, when the water flows through turbines during high tide, and when the water flows through turbines during the low tide release. One of the difficulties experienced with wave power is the same encountered with wind power, power must be carried from the source directly to the point of use through transmission power cables, because there is no way to store the energy. However, the heat energy from electricity production can also be used for cooling and other non-heating purposes, so the term “cogeneration” is more inclusive. The waterwheel was not only used to grind grains, they were also used to saw wood, power textile mills, and manufacture plants. The waterwheel served people for thousands of years and as technology advanced, the turbine was created and replaced the waterwheel.
Many countries outside of North America have the majority of their electricity coming from hydroelectric power plants.
Efficiency of these power plants could be further increased by refurbishing hydroelectric equipment. Estimation of the hydropower potential of these sites indicates 30,000 MWa of new power supply could feasibly be developed in the United States. No dynamic tidal power dam has ever been built, although all the data and technologies are available. Cogeneration is a form of local or distributed generation as heat and power production take place at or near the point of consumption. If there is more water in the reservoir, that means that there is more weight pushing on the penstock.
For instance, nearly a decade ago, 99% of Norway’s electricity was provided via hydroelectric power plants. The West is home to nearly 20,000 MW of these undeveloped, prime hydropower opportunities. The image below is of a near shore wave power device known as “Pelamis.” It is the world’s first attempt to commercially harness wave energy and add that energy to the grid.
If there is a high weight pushing on the penstock, that means that the harder and faster the water is flowing thought the turbine. Moreover, the sum of feasibly developable hydropower in the Western states roughly equals the region's developed hydropower, in terms of potential average megawatts.
Pelamis’s first use was in an offshore wave facility located off of Portugal, officially opened it 2008.
District heating can meet low and medium temperature heat demands, such as space heating and hot tap water preparation, by using waste heat from electricity generation to heat water that is transported through insulated pipes. District cooling takes advantage of natural cooling from deep water resources as well as the use of waste heat to cool water via absorption chillers.
The less common “bottoming cycle” type of cogeneration systems first produce useful heat for a manufacturing process via fuel combustion or another heat-generating chemical reaction and recover some portion of the exhaust heat to generate electricity. The following description of cogeneration systems focus on “topping cycle” applications.Each cogeneration system is adapted to meet the needs of an individual building or facility. System design is modified based on the location, size, and energy requirements of the site.
Cogeneration is not limited to any specific type of facility but is generally used in operations with sustained heating requirements. Most CHP systems are designed to meet the heat demand of the energy user since this leads to the most efficient systems. Larger facilities generally use customized systems, while smaller-scale applications can use prepackaged units. The prime mover consumes (via combustion, except in the case of fuel cells discussed below) fuel (such as coal, natural gas, or biomass) to power a generator to produce electricity, or to drive rotating equipment. Prime movers also produce thermal energy that can be captured and used for other on-site processes such as generating steam or hot water, heating air for drying, or chilling water for cooling.
The cogeneration system then uses a heat recovery system to capture the heat from the gas turbine’s exhaust stream. About half of the CHP capacity in the United States consists of large combined cycle systems that include two electricity generation steps (the combustion turbine and a steam turbine powered by heat recovered from the gas turbine exhaust) that supply steam to large industrial or commercial users and maximize power production for sale to the grid.
Steam turbines typically have capacities between 50 kW and 250 MW and work by combusting fuel in a boiler to heat water and create high-pressure steam, which turns a turbine to generate electricity.[12]The low-pressure steam that subsequently exits the steam turbine can then be used to provide useful thermal energy, as shown in Figure 3. Multiple reciprocating engines can be used to increase system capacity and enhance overall reliability.MicroturbinesMicroturbines are small, compact, lightweight combustion turbines that typically have power outputs of 30 to 300 kW.
A heat exchanger recovers thermal energy from the microturbine exhaust to produce hot water or low-pressure steam. The thermal energy from the heat recovery system can be used for potable water heating, absorption cooling, dessicant dehumidification, space heating, process heating, and other building uses. Fuel cells use an electrochemical or battery-like process to convert the chemical energy of hydrogen into water and electricity.
The hydrogen can be obtained from processing natural gas, coal, methanol, and other hydrocarbon fuels. As a less mature technology, fuel cells have high capital costs, an immature support infrastructure, and technical risk for early adopters. However, the advantages of fuel cells include low emissions and low noise, high power efficiency over a range of load factors, and modular design.
Since less fuel is burned per unit of useful energy output, cogeneration reduces GHG emissions and decreases air pollution compared to SHP systems. Generally, with the same fuel and configuration, costs for cogeneration systems per kilowatt of capacity decrease as size increases. Only about 12 percent of existing cogeneration capacity is deployed at commercial or institutional facilities (as opposed to industrial or manufacturing facilities). Nearly three quarters of cogeneration capacity uses natural gas for fuel, and gas-fired combustion turbines and combined cycle systems dominate cogeneration capacity even though nearly half of all cogeneration sites use reciprocating engines (the reciprocating engines are much smaller in terms of capacity than the other systems). PURPA required utilities to interconnect with and purchase electricity from “qualified facilities” like cogeneration systems thus giving industrial and institutional users access to the grid and the ability to sell back excess electricity. Shortly after enactment of PURPA, Congress also created federal tax credits for CHP investments. Firms may be unwilling to undertake such significant capital investments even when they may offer positive returns. If a firm is not confident that it will continue operations for many years at a given facility, it may not invest in the high upfront costs of cogeneration since a project’s economic viability can depend on cost savings realized over several years.
Utility charges for these services (standby rates) can significantly reduce the money-saving potential of cogeneration.[42] However, cogeneration and other types of distributed energy allow the grid to function more efficiently by reducing baseload and peak demand, as well as reducing the need for transmission and distribution upgrades and construction. Interconnection standards, including technical specifications as well as application processes and fees, between utilities and cogeneration systems are often state mandated and vary regionally. This lack of uniformity makes it difficult for manufacturers of cogeneration technologies to produce modular components and can make cogeneration system deployment more complicated and expensive. Improved interconnection policies could increase deployment of cogeneration systems.[43],[44]Environmental Permitting Regulations By generating both electricity and heat onsite, cogeneration can increase a facility’s onsite air emissions even as it reduces total emissions associated with the facilities heat and electricity consumption. Current environmental permitting regulations do not always recognize this overall emissions reduction benefit.
For example, the Clean Air Act’s New Source Review (NSR) requires large, stationary sources to install best available pollution control equipment during construction or major modifications that increase onsite emissions.
In some circumstances NSR requirements can discourage installation of CHP systems even when they would improve environmental outcomes.[45] The adoption of output-based emission standards, which allows cogeneration systems to benefit from their increased efficiency, is one way to encourage more cogeneration systems.
Such policies specify eligible energy sources and technologies that count towards the requirements.
ITP’s public-private partnerships help future deployment of both integrated energy systems and component technologies (for upgrading and retrofits).Technical Assistance for Potential Cogeneration UsersMany companies (especially small and medium-sized businesses) that would benefit from cogeneration systems are not aware of their financial or technical options.

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