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Chemistry LibreTexts

7.2: Generating Electricity

  • Page ID
  • Skills to Develop

    • Know how the nuclear power industry started in the United States.
    • Know the basic governmental agencies that work with nuclear facilities.
    • Understand the basics of how electricity can be generated.
    • Compare different types of energy sources.
    • Determine how to power a country while minimizing production of pollutants that affect air, soil, and water.

    AEC/NRC History

    During the Manhattan Project, Enrico Fermi and Leo Szliard constructed the world's first nuclear reactor in the basement of the University of Chicago. It consisted of layers of graphite (carbon) embedded with pieces of uranium. The sustained chain reaction was measure via a Geiger counter. After World War II, Manhattan Project scientists knew that fission could be used for power as well. In 1946, Harry S. Truman signed the McMahon/Atomic Energy Act. This transferred atomic energy control from the military to civilian power. The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was established to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. This group would study how fission could be used to power homes, industries, submarines, and battleships. In addition, the AEC would investigate how nuclear isotopes could be used in the fields of medicine and agriculture. 

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Image taken from:

    The AEC constructed the first experimental breeder nuclear (this type of equipment uses uranium to produce weapons grade plutonium) reactor in Arco, Idaho. On December 20, 1951, this reactor went online and produced enough energy to power four light bulbs. In 1957, the first full scale American commercial nuclear reactor was completed in Shippingport, Pennsylvania. The one unit reactor was operated by Duquesne Light Company and cost approximately 73 million dollars. Over its twenty-five year lifetime, Shippingport Reactor One produced over 7.4 billion kilowatt hours of energy. In 1989, Shippingport Reactor 1 was shut down and then decommissioned.


    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Installation of Shippingport Reactor 1 in Pennsylvania. Image is taken from

    From its conception, the AEC appeared to take a greater interest in nuclear weapons security than nuclear reactor safety. For this reason, Congress dismantled the AEC in 1974. The existing Department of Energy (DOE) would focus on nuclear security (weapons and materials) and nonproliferation (stopping construction of nuclear weapons). The newly formed Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) would concentrate on ensuring the safe use of radioactive materials. In other words, radioisotopes used in medical, agricultural, and industrial applications would be watched to minimize contamination of people and the environment. Additionally, NRC would regulate all commercial reactors. These energy sources would be licensed and inspected for safety purposes. If a reactor failed inspection, then the NRC had the power to enforce fines and penalties on that particular reactor.

    General Energy Production

    The great majority of all electrical generating systems (whether coal-burning power plants, hydroelectric plants, or nuclear power plants) all follow a reasonably simple design. The electricity is produced by spinning a coil of wire inside a magnetic field. When a fluid (air, steam, water) is forced through the pipe, it spins the fan blades which in turn spin the axle. To generate electricity, the axle of a turbine is attached to the loop of wire in a generator. When a fluid is forced through the turbine, the fan blades turn, the turbine axle turns, and the loop of wire inside the generator turns, thus producing electricity.


    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Image taken from:

    The essential difference in various kinds of electrical generating systems is the method used to spin the turbine. For a wind generator, the turbine is a windmill. In a geothermal generator, steam from a geyser is forced through the turbine. In hydroelectric generating plants, water falling over a dam passes through the turbine and spins it. In fossil fuel (coal, oil, natural gas) generating plants, the fossil fuel is burned and the heat is used to boil water into steam and then the steam passes through the turbine and makes it spin. In a fission reactor generating plant, a fission reaction is used to boil the water into steam and the steam passes through the turbine to make it spin. 

    Basic Energy Units

    When understanding electrical energy consumption, the kilowatt (KW) is the most commonly used unit in the United States. This unit is a measure of power. A more specific unit, the kilowatt-hour (KWH) is utilized to denote how much fuel is used to generate electrical energy over a specific amount of time. Power meters are installed in consumer and industrial facilities to measure kilowatt-hour usage. Power companies charge various rates around the country for electrical consumption. The pictures below show a traditional power meter and a typical residential power bill. Watch this video to get an understanding of the kilowatt hour and how different appliance use different amounts of kilowatts.


     Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Meter image taken from: and (right) A powerbill showing kilowatt hours.

    Powering a Country

    Production of electricity can involve either one of two primary energy sources. For example, a country employs nonrenewable sources like natural gas, petroleum, coal, or nuclear energy to supply power to homes and industry. In addition, an area might choose to incorporate renewable energy sources to meet their consumers' needs. Examples of these would include biomass, hydropower, geothermal, wind, and solar energies.

     Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Chart illustrating electrical power generation in the United States. Image taken from:

    As of 2017, the current United States population is approximately 326 million people. Supplying electricity to a population of this size requires many different types of sources. At this time, the majority of electrical output is the result of fossil fuel combustion.

    Table \(\PageIndex{2}\): Energy Conversion: Typical Heat Values of Various Fuels (units are Megajoule/kilogram)
    Firewood (dry) 16 MJ/kg
    Brown coal (lignite) 10 MJ/kg
    Black coal (low quality) 13-23 MJ/kg
    Black coal (hard) 24-30 MJ/kg
    Natural Gas 38 MJ/m3
    Crude Oil 45-46 MJ/kg
    Uranium - in typical reactor 500,000 MJ/kg (of natural U)


    In the United States, coal is the cheapest option as an electrical source. The coal industry estimates that there is approximately 260 billion tons of coal yet to be mined in this country. Assuming the daily rate of coal consumption remained constant, the United States should have enough coal reserves to last over 230 years. Annually, The United States produces over one billion tons of coal. This value equates to approximately 12% of the world's supply.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Image taken from:

    Heavy equipment is utilized to extract coal from the surface of the earth. Surface mining can lead to residual chemicals from the coal entering the water supply and surrounding soils. Many states, namely West Virginia and Pennsylvania, still use coal miners to dig coal from underground reserves. Although regulated, this occupation can be particularly risky with exposure to particulate chemicals that can affect the lung and hearts of workers. In addition, gaseous chemicals inside the mine can combust easily if a spark is present. This could result in trapped workers and fatalities at the site.

    There are 600 coal-burning electric plants in the US delivering \(44.9\%\) of American electricity and producing 2 billion tons of \(\ce{CO_2}\) annually, accounting for \(40\%\) of U.S. \(\ce{CO_2}\) emissions and \(10\%\) of global emissions. These coal-burning plants also produce \(64\%\) of the sulfur dioxide emissions, \(26\%\) of the nitrous oxide emissions, and \(33\%\) of mercury emissions. Sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide combustion are components of acid rain and smog. Mercury, a heavy metal toxin, affects the neurological system and can cause behavior and intellectual disorders. Incomplete combustion of carbon can produce particulate matter. These carbon-based solids gather in the atmosphere and make visibility difficult. All chemicals and matter resulting from the combustion process can cause heart, lung, and immunity disorders. In addition, high combustion areas can affect the average lifespan of individuals and species living in these areas.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Two pictures of Beijing in 2005. The picture on the left shows the city after two days of rain. The picture on the right shows smog gathering in the atmosphere. The image is taken from

    Coal can be cleaned to remove some impurities (like sulfur-based species), but there is no such thing as "clean" coal. Industries that burn coal can install scrubbers in their smokestacks to grab many pollutants before their enter the atmosphere. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates all pollutants resulting from the combustion process except for carbon dioxide.

    Natural Gas

    Natural gas combustion does not produce as many types of byproducts. It is a much cleaner fuel to burn and there would be less environmental and health problems related to this fuel choice. Greenhouse gases are still produced when this fuel is burned. Unfortunately, natural gas exists deep within the ground and can be difficult to extract. 


    Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\): Natural gas reserves in the United States. Image is taken from


    Hydroelectric sources provide almost 7% of the United State's electricity. To use this type of energy, a large body of water needs to be present within the area. A river is intentionally dammed to create a large water supply. With monitored releases, the dammed water is allowed to fall to a lower altitude. This motion will turn a turbine which will produce energy. Unlike fossil fuel combustion, hydroelectric sources do not release toxins into the atmosphere. As a result, this method of energy production does not contribute to global warming, acid rain, or smog production. Some disadvantages of hydroelectric power include disruption of an aquatic ecosystem. Construction of hydroelectric facilities requires large areas of land that could involve uprooting and affecting human and animal populations. human population. Lastly, altering land geology can cause severe flooding.

    The largest hydroelectric facility in the United State is located in Washington State along the Columbia River. Grand Coulee Dam produces over 6800 Megawatts of electrical energy for this region of the country. At this time, there are over 1600 hydroelectric plants in the United States.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{9}\): Arial view of Grand Coulee Dam. The image is taken from

    Solar and Wind Power

    In recent years, the use of wind and solar sources has increased in this country. Both of these types of energy require large plots of land for their structures. In addition, both the sun and wind need to be present to generate energy. Wind and solar energy can be stored for days for days in which the climate does not produce adequate amounts of either. With wind energy, there is some concern about how the structures appear and affect wildlife. These devices can also be very noisy. At this time, Texas leads the country in the production of wind energy.

    Research has focused on making components of solar panels less toxic and more affordable for the average consumer. Many utility companies offer incentives for residents to install solar panels. In addition, some utility companies will buy back excess solar wattage from its own consumers. The state of California leads the country in the production of solar energy. The Ivanapah Solar Farm in the Mohave Desert generates over 390 megawatts of energy per year.

     Figure \(\PageIndex{10}\): Ivanapah is the largest solar farm in the United States in California.The imagee is taken from

    Recently, Furman University installed its own solar farm. Click on this link to read more about how this university is using renewable energy to cut down on carbon emissions.

    Nuclear Reactors

    There are over thirty countries that use nuclear power to generate electricity. Commercial nuclear reactors can be found in North and South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. The United States has the most reactors of any other countries. There are around ninety-nine reactors in the United States that provide around twenty percent of the electrical energy in the United States. Other countries, like France, employ around sixty nuclear reactors to produce 80% of their electrical power. 

    Table \(\PageIndex{1}\): Nuclear Share of Electricity Generation in 2016. Data from International Atomic Energy Agency
    Country Number of Operated Reactors Total Net Electrical Capacity  [MW]Nuclear Electricity Supplied  [GW.h]Nuclear Share 
    FRANCE 58 63130 386452.88 72.3
    SLOVAKIA 4 1814 13733.35 54.1
    UKRAINE 15 13107 76077.79 52.3
    BELGIUM 7 5913 41430.45 51.7
    HUNGARY 4 1889 15183.01 51.3
    SWEDEN 10 9740 60647.40 40.0
    SLOVENIA 1 688 5431.27 35.2
    BULGARIA 2 1926 15083.45 35.0
    SWITZERLAND 5 3333 20303.12 34.4
    FINLAND 4 2764 22280.10 33.7
    ARMENIA 1 375 2194.85 31.4
    KOREA, REPUBLIC OF 25 23077 154306.65 30.3
    CZECH REPUBLIC 6 3930 22729.87 29.4
    SPAIN 7 7121 56102.44 21.4
    UNITED KINGDOM 15 8918 65148.98 20.4
    UNITED STATES OF AMERICA 100 100351 804872.94 19.7
    ROMANIA 2 1300 10388.20 17.1
    RUSSIA 36 26496 184054.09 17.1
    CANADA 19 13554 95650.19 15.6
    GERMANY 8 10799 80069.61 13.1
    SOUTH AFRICA 2 1860 15209.47 6.6
    MEXICO 2 1552 10272.29 6.2
    ARGENTINA 3 1632 7677.36 5.6
    PAKISTAN 4 1005 5438.90 4.4
    CHINA 36 31384 197829.04 3.6
    INDIA 22 6240 35006.83 3.4
    NETHERLANDS 1 482 3749.81 3.4
    BRAZIL 2 1884 14970.46 2.9
    JAPAN 43 40290 17537.14 2.2
    IRAN 1 915 5923.97 2.1

    Today's nuclear power plants use fission reactions to generate energy for electrical production. One kilogram of U-235 can supply over 2.4 x 107 kilowatt-hours (kWH) of energy. In contrast, one kilogram of coal can only produce 8-kilowatt hours of energy. Also, nuclear does not contribute to the problems of acid rain, smog, or greenhouse gas production.

    Nuclear and coal power plants can appear similar to most people. Both of these types of facilities have large cooling towers that release excess steam energy into the atmosphere. Nuclear power plants will have small, round, dome-like structures to house the nuclear reactors. In contrast, coal-fired plants will have slender chimney stacks that tower above or at the rounder cooling towers.


    Figure \(\PageIndex{11}\): (left) View of Vogtle Nuclear Power Plant (Units 1 and 2) in Augusta, Georgia produces approximately 2.3 gigawatts of power a year.  (right) The Bruce Mansfield Coal Fire Plant in Shipping Port, Pennsylvania produces 2.4 gigawatts of energy a year. Images are taken from and