Ever wonder where our electricity comes from? What types of power plants run the power grid here in the US? The fact is it comes from all kinds of sources, everything from the oldest source, coal, to new and cleaner renewable energy sources like wind and solar power. There are right now more than 7000 power plants all across the United States connected by a common grid.
The first ever coal-fired plant was built to power the NYC area back in 1882. Today, there are more than 600 such plants. Even though this accounts for less than 10 percent of all power plants in the US, coal-fired plants generate almost 40 percent of all the electricity in the country. Coal plants are not the cleanest burning source and are being replaced today by other sources.
While oil-fired plants operate much the same as coal-fired (burning the source which in turn produces steam and drives a turbine), oil is not as dirty as coal. On the other hand, the volatile price of oil makes them expensive at times and susceptible to the fluctuating markets. Today, there are only 26 such oil-fired plants operating in the US.
Natural gas plants
Like its conventional counterparts, natural gas-powered plants also use steam to drive a turbine. A much cleaner source than both coal and oil, natural gas has become the popular source. In 2013, almost 50 percent of all new power plants used natural gas as a source, replacing many coal-fired plants as well. There are right now, however, only 22 natural-gas powered plants in the US.
Nuclear power plants use the heat generated by the controlled chain-reaction of radioactive uranium to produce steam. The first nuclear plant in the US was built back in 1957 and today there are as many as 65 nuclear-powered facilities. That accounts for as much as 20 percent of all the electrical output in the United States. Because of environmental concerns, nuclear power stalled in the 1980s but is making a comeback today.
Geothermal plants rely on naturally occurring steam from under the ground to power their turbines, but because they basically rely on volcanoes they can be built in only selected areas. The US is the leader in geothermal plants, all residing in the western part of the country. The largest such collection is known as “The Geyers” and is located in California.
Hydroelectric plants use running water to power their turbines. Most popular of the hydroelectric power plants rest on dams like the Hoover and the Grand Coulee dam. Hydroelectric plants can be found all over the country, in 34 of the 50 states, Although they account for just 6.4 percent of all electrical output in the US, that still constitutes 67 percent of all renewable energy.
Biomass power plants rely on the natural gas that is produced by decaying matter either from plants and today more than ever even waste. It’s the carbon in the decaying matter that produces gases such as methane. Biomass plants are becoming more and more popular, even though they only account for 1.4 percent of all the output today.
Solar power plants
Solar is considered the cleanest and most renewable source of energy as it relies on an endless supply: the sun. While most think of solar power being stored in batteries, it can also be used in the form of mirrors heating up boilers. Solar energy constitutes just 0.25 percent of all the nation’s power.
Wind power plants
Wind power is that other super clean source of energy. Wind farms consist of dozens of huge windmills (sometimes hundreds) all dotted across the countryside. The wind blows against the blades which in turn causes them to turn. That mechanical energy is then turned into electricity. With 120 major wind farms now in turn all across the US, wind power makes for as much as 4.1 percent of all the power supply.