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Electricity explained Electricity in the United States

Electricity in the United States is produced with diverse energy sources and technologies

The United States uses many different energy sources and technologies to generate electricity. The sources and technologies have changed over time and some are used more than others.

The three major categories of energy for electricity generation are fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, and petroleum), nuclear energy, and renewable energy sources. Most electricity is generated with steam turbines using fossil fuels, nuclear, biomass, geothermal, and solar thermal energy. Other major electricity generation technologies include gas turbines, hydro turbines, wind turbines, and solar photovoltaics.

Sources of U.S. electricity generation, 2017: Renewables 17%, Petroleum 1%, nuclear 20%, coal 30%, natural gas 32%

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Fossil fuels are the largest sources of energy for electricity generation

Natural gas was the largest source—about 35%—of U.S. electricity generation in 2018. Natural gas is used in steam turbines and gas turbines to generate electricity.

Coal was the second-largest energy source for U.S. electricity generation in 2018—about 27%. Nearly all coal-fired power plants use steam turbines. A few coal-fired power plants convert coal to a gas for use in a gas turbine to generate electricity.

Petroleum was the source of less than 1% of U.S. electricity generation in 2018. Residual fuel oil and petroleum coke are used in steam turbines. Distillate—or diesel—fuel oil is used in diesel-engine generators. Residual fuel oil and distillates can also be burned in gas turbines.

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Nuclear energy provides one-fifth of U.S. electricity

Nuclear energy was the source of about 19% of U.S. electricity generation in 2018. Nuclear power plants use steam turbines to produce electricity from nuclear fission.

Renewable energy sources provide nearly 20% of U.S. electricity

A variety of renewable energy sources are used to generate electricity and were the source of about 17% of total U.S. electricity generation in 2018.

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Hydropower plants produced about 7% of total U.S. electricity generation and about 41% of electricity generation from renewable energy in 2018. Hydropower plants use flowing water to spin a turbine connected to a generator.

Wind energy was the source of about 7% of total U.S. electricity generation and about 39% of electricity generation from renewable energy in 2018. Wind turbines convert wind energy into electricity.

Biomass, the source of about 2% of total U.S. electricity generation in 2018, is burned directly in steam-electric power plants, or it can be converted to a gas that can be burned in steam generators, gas turbines, or internal combustion engine generators.

Solar energy provided about 2% of total U.S. electricity in 2018. Photovoltaic (PV) and solar-thermal power are the two main types of solar electricity generation technologies. PV conversion produces electricity directly from sunlight in a photovoltaic cell. Most solar-thermal power systems use steam turbines to generate electricity.

Geothermal power plants produced less than 1% of total U.S. electricity generation in 2018. Geothermal power plants use steam turbines to generate electricity.

Last updated: April 19, 2019