You flip the switch, the lights turn on or the computer powers up. Many take this phenomenon for granted but, at Alagasco, we certainly don’t.
It’s a small miracle that our energy systems works as well as they do, directing power from hundreds of plants across the country to the homes and businesses where it’s needed. We’ll save explaining how electricity works for a later post, but for now, let’s take a look at the different types of power that are used across our nation.
We’re fans of natural gas because of its tremendous benefits (of course!), but coal, nuclear, and renewable energy sources like wind, solar and hydropower also contribute to the energy we use every day. This handy graph from the Energy Information Administration breaks down the role each source currently plays in our nations’ energy consumption.
Now let’s look at how they work, starting with our favorite, Natural Gas:
Almost all of the natural gas used in America comes from America, where it is extracted from natural resources right here on our own soil. Once extracted, it’s delivered to power plants via pipelines. The natural gas is used to boil water into steam which turns a turbine and powers a generator. Voila! Electricity! Natural gas offers benefits over other energy sources like coal and oil – it burns clean, without soot, smoke or undesirable byproducts like ash that must be buried or hauled away. And, recent advances in technology have unlocked vast supplies of natural gas – enough to fuel our nation for generations. To put that in perspective, America is now seen as having more natural gas than Saudi Arabia has oil.
Coal is America’s most abundant fossil fuel, spanning the country from Pennsylvania’s anthracite hills to Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, which in part explains why it comprises such a large portion of our country’s power generation. Mile-long trains haul coal from these mines, delivering it to power plants to be used here at home or to ports, where it’s shipped for use overseas. At the plants, conveyors and trucks move the coal in heaping mounds sometimes hundreds of feet tall. The coal is then pulverized into a fine dust that’s burned in boilers. As with natural gas, these boilers produce steam that powers generators. Since coal burns “dirtier” than natural gas, coal-fired power plants use devices on their smokestacks to capture much of the particulate matter, like ash, produced during the process, but disposing of this waste sometimes poses a problem.
Nuclear power relies on the energy released each time an atom is split. At a nuclear power plant, the heat needed to boil water and create steam comes from splitting a big atom (that is, one with lots of protons and neutrons), like Uranium, into smaller atoms, like krypton and barium. Breaking up atoms releases huge amounts of energy, so a little bit of nuclear fuel goes a long way. That fuel is then “enriched” or concentrated so that power plants can use it. When the fuel is used up, it’s generally stored at the plant itself or in a secure location where its radiation poses less danger.
Quick! What one thing on earth makes the best use of the sun’s energy? You’re right on target if you said “plants,” but people do a pretty good job, too. Using arrays of solar panels that generate power as light hits them, we can transform the sun’s energy into electricity. But it takes a whole lot of panels and even more light to get things going. In Alabama, it’s often too cloudy to make solar panels worth the cost, but in the Southwest, you’ll find whole fields of panels collecting the sun’s rays.
The earliest hydropower appeared ages ago in the form of water wheels, and today, the technology isn’t that much different. Using dams, hydropower plants back up a lot of water in one place, then funnel it through tubes and past turbines. Just like the steam in a traditional power plant, the fast-moving water turns these turbines to generate electricity. Once past the dam, the water continues on its merry way and the electricity goes where it’s needed.
While traditional power plants rely on heating water into steam to spin a generator’s turbine, wind power cuts out the middleman and uses a steady breeze outdoors instead. They’re not a common sight in Alabama, but in the West where the wind seems to blow all the time, these giant windmills can crop up in the hundreds, each producing just a little bit of energy.