At first glance, energy production can appear extremely complicated. There are dozens of different generation types – coal, natural gas, nuclear, wind, geothermal, and many more. At a fundamental level, however, most of these generation types follow the same basic principles discovered by Michael Faraday in 1831.
Michael Faraday discovered that when a magnet is moved inside a coil of wire, an electric current flows in the wire. All the generation types mentioned above are able to operate because they convert physical (kinetic) energy into electricity using an electromagnet (a magnet produced by electricity rather than a physical magnet).
These generators have a series of insulated coils of wire that form a stationary cylinder. This cylinder surrounds a rotary electromagnetic shaft. When the electromagnetic shaft rotates, it induces a small electric current in each section of the wire coil. Each section of the wire coil becomes a small, separate electric conductor. The small currents of the individual sections combine to form one large current. This current is the electricity that moves through power lines from generators to consumers.
An electric power plant uses a turbine or other similar machine to drive these types of generators. Other types of turbines are steam turbines, gas combustion turbines, water turbines, and wind turbines.
A turbine converts the kinetic energy of a moving fluid (liquid or gas) to mechanical energy. In a turbine generator, a moving fluid pushes a series of blades mounted on a shaft, which rotates the shaft connected to a generator. The generator, in turn, converts the mechanical energy to electrical energy based on the relationship between magnetism and electricity.
Steam turbines that use biomass, coal, geothermal energy, natural gas, nuclear energy, and solar thermal energy produce about 70% of U.S. electricity generation. These types of power plants are about 35% efficient, which means that for every 100 units of primary heat energy that goes into a power plant, only 35 units are converted to useable electrical energy.
Other types of devices that generate or produce electricity include electrochemical batteries, fuel cells, solar photovoltaic cells, and thermoelectric generators.