The production of electricity in the U.S. falls into three major source categories:
- fossil fuels, including natural gas and coal
- nuclear energy
- renewable energy, including hydropower, solar power and wind
Let’s take a look at the US energy generation by source and how this energy that powers our day to day lives actually comes to be.
The diversity of the United States’ production of electricity mirrors its diversity as a nation. In 2017, approximately 4,015 billion kilowatthours (kWh) were generated at power facilities.
The U.S. is currently listed as consuming the second largest quantity of electricity in the world, just behind China. It’s a good thing we have a landscape of resources above and below to keep us energized far into the future.
1. Fossil Fuels
Natural gas, coal, and petroleum fall into the category of fossil fuels. Fossil fuel power plants burn carbon fuels, like gas or coal, to generate steam, which in turn powers large turbines that produce electricity.
Because fossil fuels have taken millions of years to form, they are not considered a renewable energy. They are also an unlikely long-term energy solution given their burden to both the environment, and our health.
Natural gas, which contributed to 31.7 percent of our electricity production in 2017, is found in 32 states. Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Wyoming and Louisiana are our top producing states, contributing more than 50 percent of the nation’s total.
Compared to the rest of the world, the U.S. holds a small percentage of worldwide reserves.
However, it’s estimated that there’s enough natural gas to last us at least 60 years, particularly when we consider undiscovered reserves and the continued development in technology to find them.
The U.S. imports a small amount of natural gas to cover the domestic demand, most of which comes from Canada through pipelines. The US also exports some of its natural gas and in 2017, became a leading exporter.
Coal is significant in our production of power. 30.1 percent of our electricity was generated from coal-fired plants in 2017. Because coal is buried underground, it’s difficult to know exactly how much we have left.
Five countries across the planet hold approximately 75 percent of the world’s coal reserves, with the US coming in second place at 21 percent. Coal is mined in 25 states with Wyoming, West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Montana, and Texas, being top producers.
Much like natural gas, coal burning plants have come under fire for their contribution to climate change, air and water pollution and health threats to workers.
The industry has developed solutions to reduce sulphur and other impurities from coal. With more environmental laws pushing back on the coal industry, companies are building plants that emit fewer pollutants, discharge no water and reuse coal ash.
2. Nuclear Energy
Considered a practical, inexpensive, and emission-free source of energy, nuclear energy is uniquely “All-American.” This technology was pioneered in the years after World War II, and the US was the first nation to harness electricity from a nuclear reactor.
Nuclear power is produced when uranium atoms split in a process called fission. This generates heat to produce steam, which is used by a turbine generator to create electricity. There is no fuel burned, therefore they don’t produce greenhouse emissions.
Because nuclear plants don’t have to stop to refuel for 18 months at a time, they’re able to work around the clock, seven days a week.
There are currently 61 operating nuclear power plants with 99 nuclear reactors in 30 states across the U.S. Of these plants, 36 have two or more reactors.
The largest nuclear plant is Palo Verde in Arizona, which holds three reactors with a combined net summer electricity producing capacity of 3,937 megawatts.
Two new nuclear reactors are currently under construction in Georgia.
3. Renewable Energy
Sunlight, wind, water, geothermal, and biomass are all renewable energy sources harnessed and used to generate electricity in the U.S. Renewable means that their energy cannot be exhausted, and is always renewed.
Renewable energy is slowly catching up to the dominance of fossil fuels in the market. While it may seem like eons before this happens, it’s getting there slowly and surely.
In 2017, 18 percent of all electricity was generated in the U.S. by renewable resources, up from 15 percent in 2016.
One of the oldest methods of producing electrical energy, hydropower accounts for 7.5 percent of the total U.S. utility-scale electricity generation and 44 percent of the total renewable energy pool. Hydroelectric power is produced when water moves through a hydroelectric power plant, typically located near a water source. The largest hydropower plant in the United States is found in northern Washington on the Columbia River.
Solar energy contributed only 1.3 percent to our total electricity production in 2017, but it’s on the rise. Due to solar costs declining and technologies advancing, the industry as a whole is booming.
Solar power is generated when solar panels convert sunlight to energy. With California dominating the solar market, other states are on the rise to install and produce this endless resource.
Wind turbines create energy when the wind turns giant blades around a rotor connected to a main shaft, which spins a generator to produce electricity.
Get an in depth look at other renewable energy resources, and their forward growth in the U.S. electricity market for 2018.