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Electricity in the United States

Most of the electricity in the United States is produced using steam turbines

A turbine converts the kinetic energy of a moving fluid (liquid or gas) to mechanical energy. In a steam turbine, steam is forced against a series of blades mounted on a shaft. The steam rotates the shaft connected to a generator. The generator, in turn, converts its mechanical energy to electrical energy based on the relationship between magnetism and electricity.

In steam turbines powered by fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, and petroleum), the fuel is burned in a furnace to heat water in a boiler to produce steam.

Most of U.S. electricity is generated using fossil fuels

In 2016, natural gas was the largest energy source for the 4 trillion kilowatthours of electricity generated in the United States.

Natural gas was the source of about 34% of U.S. electricity generation in 2016. In addition to burning natural gas to heat water for steam, it is also burned to produce hot combustion gases that pass through a gas turbine, spinning the turbine's blades to generate electricity.

Coal was the second-largest energy source for U.S. electricity generation in 2016—about 30%. 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 can be burned to produce hot combustion gases to turn a turbine or to make steam that turns a turbine. Residual fuel oil and petroleum coke, products from refining crude oil, are the main petroleum fuels used in steam turbines. Distillate (or diesel) fuel oil is used in diesel-engine generators. Petroleum was the source of less than 1% of U.S. electricity generation in 2016.

Nuclear power provides about one-fifth of U.S. electricity

Nuclear power plants produce electricity with nuclear fission to create steam that spins a turbine to generate electricity. Nuclear power was the source of about 20% of U.S. electricity generation in 2016.

Renewable energy sources provide 15% of U.S. electricity

Hydropower, the source of about 7% of total U.S. electricity generation (about 44% of electricity generation from renewable energy) in 2016, is a process in which flowing water spins a turbine connected to a generator. Most hydropower production is at large facilities built by the federal government, such as the Grand Coulee Dam. Many of the largest hydroelectric dams are in the western United States, but many hydropower facilities operate around the country.

Wind power is produced by converting wind energy into electricity with wind turbines. Electricity generation from wind has increased significantly in the United States since 1970. In 2016, wind power provided almost 6% of U.S. electricity generation (about 37% of electricity generation from renewable energy).

Biomass is material derived from plants or animals and includes lumber and paper mill wastes and the food scraps, grass, leaves, paper, and wood in municipal solid waste (garbage). Biomass also includes forestry and agricultural residues such as wood chips, corn cobs, and wheat straw. These materials can be burned directly in steam-electric power plants, or they can be converted to a gas that can be burned in steam generators, gas turbines, or internal combustion engine-generators. Biomass accounted for about 2% of total U.S. electricity generation in 2016.

Solar power is produced with energy from the sun. Photovoltaic (PV) and solar-thermal power are the two main types of technologies used to convert solar energy to electricity. PV conversion produces electricity directly from sunlight in a photovoltaic (solar) cell. Solar-thermal power generators concentrate solar energy to heat a fluid and produce steam to drive turbines. In 2016, about 1% of U.S. electricity generation was from solar energy.

Geothermal power comes from heat energy beneath the surface of the earth. In some areas of the United States, geothermal energy is close enough to the earth's surface to heat underground water into steam, which is tapped for use at steam-turbine plants. Geothermal electricity generation was less than 1% of total U.S. electricity generation in 2016.

Last updated: May 10, 2017

Did you know?

A standard unit for measuring electricity is the kilowatt (kW), which is equal to 1,000 Watts. A Watt is a measure of energy named after the Scottish engineer James Watt. One kW of electricity generated or used over the course of one hour is a kilowatthour (kWh). Other units for measuring electricity capacity and electricity generation and consumption are

  • Megawatt (MW) = 1,000 kW; megawatthour (MWh) = 1,000 kWh
  • Gigawatt (GW) = 1,000 MW; gigawatthour (GWH) = 1,000 MWh

Did you know?

Electricity generating capacity has three general categories. Nameplate capacity is determined by the generator's manufacturer and indicates the maximum output of electricity a generator can theoretically produce at a certain point in time without exceeding specified thermal limits.Net summer capacity and net winter capacity indicate the maximum instantaneous electricity load a generator can support during the respective season. These values may differ because of seasonal variations in the temperature of the cooling water or ambient air used by the generating unit.

Did you know?

The number of small-scale distributed solar photovoltaic (PV) systems, such as those found on residential and commercial rooftops, has grown significantly in the United States over the past several years. Estimates of small-scale solar PV capacity and generation by state and sector are included in the Electric Power Monthly. As of the end of 2016, almost 41% of total small-scale solar PV electricity generating capacity in the United States was in California.

Three terms are important to understand when learning about electricity production and consumption:

  • Generation is a measure of the amount of electricity produced over a period of time. Most electric power plants use some of the electricity that they produce to operate the power plant itself.
  • Capacity is the maximum level at which electric power (electricity) can be supplied at a specific point in time under certain conditions.
  • Sales are the amount of electricity sold to customers over a period of time. They represent a proxy for most electricity consumption.

The amount of electricity generation is greater than electricity sales in the United States. The main reason for this difference is the amount of energy that is lost (as heat) in the transmission and distribution of electricity. In addition, some electricity consumers generate electricity and use most or all of it. This use is called direct use. These consumers include industrial, manufacturing, commercial, and institutional facilities, as well as homeowners that have their own electricity generators. The United States also exports and imports some electricity to and from Canada and Mexico. Total U.S. electricity consumption by end-use consumers is equal to U.S. retail sales of electricity plus direct use of electricity.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) publishes data on two general types of electricity generation and electricity generating capacity:

  • Utility scale includes electricity generation and capacity of generating units (generators) located at power plants with at least one megawatt of total electricity generating capacity.
  • Small scale includes generators with less than one megawatt of generating capacity that are usually at or near the location where the electricity is consumed. The most common type of small-scale systems are solar photovoltaic systems installed on building rooftops.

Electricity generation

In 2016, net generation of electricity from utility-scale generators in the United States was about 4.08 trillion kilowatthours (kWh). EIA estimates that an additional 19 billion kWh (or 0.02 trillion kWh) were generated by small-scale solar photovoltaic (PV) systems, most of which was direct use. EIA estimates that total direct use of net electricity generation in 2016 equaled about 142 billion kWh.

About 65% of utility-scale electricity generation in the United States was produced from fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, and petroleum), about 20% was from nuclear energy, and about 15% was from renewable energy sources in 2016:

  • Natural gas —34%
  • Coal —30%
  • Nuclear—20%
  • Renewables (total)—15%
  • Nonhydroelectric renewables—8.4%
  • Hydroelectric—6.5%
  • Petroleum and other—1%

Electricity generating capacity

Having sufficient capacity to generate electric power is important. The physical properties of electricity require that enough electricity be produced and placed on the electric power system, or grid, at every moment to instantaneously balance electricity demand.

Most of the time, many power plants are not generating electricity at their full capacities. Three major types of generating units vary by intended usage:

  • A base load generating unit normally satisfies all or part of the minimum, or base, demand (load) on the system. A base load generating unit runs continuously, producing electricity at, essentially, a constant rate. Base load generating units generally have the largest capacity of the three types of units.
  • A peak load generating unit helps to meet requirements during periods of greatest, or peak, load on the system such as when hot weather increases electricity demand for air conditioning.
  • An intermediate load generating unit meets system requirements that are more than base load but less than peak load. Intermediate load generating units are used during the transition between base load and peak load requirements.

Generators powered by wind and solar energy supply electricity only when these resources are available (i.e., when it's windy or sunny). When these renewable generators are operating, they may reduce the amount of electricity required from other generators to supply the grid.

Distributed generators are connected to the electricity grid, but they are mainly used to supply some or all of the electricity demand of individual buildings or facilities. Sometimes, these systems may generate more electricity than the facility consumes, in which case the surplus electricity is sent to the grid. Most small-scale solar photovoltaic systems are distributed generators.

At the end of 2016, the United States had about 1,080,000 megawatts, or 1.1 billion kilowatts (kW), of total utility-scale electricity generating capacity and about 13 million kW of small-scale distributed solar photovoltaic electricity generating capacity.

Generating units fueled by natural gas accounted for the largest share of utility-scale electricity generating capacity in the United States at the end of 2016. The shares of utility-scale electricity generating capacity by primary energy source:

  • Natural gas—41%
  • Coal—25%
  • Hydroelectric—10%
  • Nonhydroelectric renewables—11%
  • Nuclear—9%
  • Petroleum—3%
  • Other sources—1%

Energy sources for U.S. electricity generation

The mix of energy sources for generating electricity in the United States has changed over time, especially in recent years. Natural gas and renewable energy sources account for an increasing share of U.S. electricity generation, while coal-fired electricity generation has declined. In 1990, coal-fired power plants accounted for about 42% of U.S. electricity generating capacity and about 52% of total electricity generation. By the end of 2016, coal's share of electricity generating capacity decreased to 25% and accounted for 30% of total electricity generation. Over the same period, the share of natural gas-fired electricity generating capacity more than doubled from 17% in 1990 to 41% in 2016, and its share of electricity generation nearly tripled from 12% in 1990 to 34% in 2016.

Most nuclear and hydropower plants were built before 1990. Nuclear energy's share of total U.S. electricity generation has held steady at about 20% since 1990. Electricity generation from hydropower, historically the largest source of renewable electricity generation, fluctuates from year to year because of precipitation patterns.

Total monthly U.S. electricity generation from nonhydro renewables now routinely exceeds hydroelectricity generation

Renewable electricity generation from sources other than hydropower has steadily increased in recent years, mainly because of additions to wind and solar generating capacity. In 2014, the total annual electricity generation from utility-scale nonhydro renewable sources surpassed hydropower generation for the first time.

Wind energy's share of total utility-scale electricity generating capacity in the United States grew from 0.2% in 1990 to about 8% in 2016, and its share of total annual utility-scale electricity generation grew to almost 6%.

While relatively small in terms of its share of total U.S. electricity capacity and generation, solar electricity generating capacity and generation has grown significantly in recent years. Utility-scale solar electricity generating capacity rose from about 314 megawatts (or 314,000 kW) in 1990 to more than 21,500 megawatts (MW) at the end of 2016, of which about 90% was solar photovoltaic systems and 10% was solar thermal/electric systems. Solar energy's share of total U.S. utility-scale electricity generation in 2016 was about 1%, up from less than 0.1% in 1990. In addition, EIA estimates that by the end of 2016, the United States had 13,200 MW of small-scale solar photovoltaic generating capacity, which generated about 19.5 billion kilowatthours during the year.

Various factors influence the mix of energy sources for electricity generation

The major factors that have contributed to changes in the U.S. electricity generation mix in recent years are:

  • Declining natural gas prices
  • Slowing growth in electricity demand
  • Implementing federal air pollution emission regulations
  • Meeting state requirements to use more renewable sources
  • Using federal and state financial incentives for building new renewable capacity

The declining price of natural gas has been a major contributor to the rise in natural gas-fired electricity generation and the decline in coal-fired electricity generation since 2008. When natural gas prices are relatively low, high-efficiency, natural gas-fired combined-cycle generators can supply electricity at a lower cost than coal-fired generators. Coal-fired power plants then operate less often and earn less revenue, which decreases their profitability and reduces the incentive to invest in new coal-fired generating capacity. Sustained low natural gas prices encourage development of new natural-gas fired capacity. In contrast to coal-fired generators, natural gas-fired generators

  • Can be added in smaller increments to meet grid generating capacity requirements
  • Can respond more quickly to changes in hourly electricity demand
  • Generally, have lower compliance costs with environmental regulations

Retail electricity sales

U.S. retail electricity sales to end-use customers totaled 3,711 billion kWh (or 3.7 trillion kWh) in 2016, about 48 billion kWh less than in 2015. Retail sales include net imports (imports minus exports) of electricity from Canada and Mexico.

Who buys electricity?

Sales of electricity generally went to four types of U.S. retail customers in 2016:

  • Residential—1,407 billion kWh (38% of electricity sold)
  • Commercial—1,360 billion kWh (36%)
  • Industrial—936 billion kWh (26%)
  • Transportation—7 billion kWh (0.2%)

Who sells electricity?

Six major types of electricity providers sell electricity to end-use consumers. The shares of electricity sales by type of provider in 2015 (most recent annual data available at the time of this update) are:

  • Investor-owned utilities—52%
  • Power marketers—20%
  • Federal, state, and local utilities—14%
  • Electric cooperatives—12%

In addition to sales to end-use customers, electricity is also often traded on wholesale markets or through bilateral contracts.



Last updated: May 10, 2017

Largest U.S. electricity generation facilities by annual net electricity generation

Data for 2015

Rank

Facility name

Primary fuel/energy source

State

Net generation
(megawatthours)

1 Palo Verde Nuclear Arizona 32,525,595
2 Browns Ferry Nuclear Alabama 27,669,694
3 Oconee Nuclear South Carolina 21,939,740
4 Susquehanna Nuclear Pennsylvania 20,591,260
5 West County Energy Center Natural gas, fuel oil Florida 20,428,360
6 Turkey Point Nuclear, natural gas Florida 20,337,856
7 Comanche Peak Nuclear Texas 19,954,124
8 Peach Bottom Nuclear Pennsylvania 19,858,302
9 Braidwood Generation Station Nuclear Illinois 19,710,011
10 McGuire Nuclear North Carolina 19,536,002

Source: Form EIA-923, detailed data

Largest U.S. electricity generation facilities by electricity generation capacity

Data for 2015

Rank

Plant name

Primary fuel/energy source

State

Summer capacity
(megawatts)

1 Grand Coulee Hydroelectric Washington 7,079
2 Palo Verde Nuclear Arizona 3,937
3 Martin Natural gas, fuel oil Florida 3,695
4 W.A. Parish Natural gas, coal Texas 3,675
5 West County Energy Center Natural gas, fuel oil Florida 3,669
6 Turkey Point Nuclear, natural gas Florida 3,540
7 Scherer Coal Georgia 3,389
8 Browns Ferry Nuclear Tennessee 3,309
9 Bowen Coal Georgia 3,232
10 Gibson Coal Indiana 3,132

Source: Form EIA-860, detailed data

 

Last updated: February 1, 2017