Electrical power

Electrical power

Big Bend Power Station, Tampa Bay, FloridaBig Bend Power Station, Tampa Bay, Florida Electricity is a type of energy that gives us heat and light and drives machines. To be useful, electricity must be made to flow in a current. In 1831 the British scientist Michael Faraday used a magnet to produce electricity. He moved a loop of wire over the magnet, causing an electric current to flow along the wire. This principle is used to generate electricity in power stations today.

 Cross-section through a generator inside a power... Cross-section through a generator inside a power...


Generators provide nearly all of the power for electric power grids. A generator makes electricity by converting motion (kinetic energy) into electrical energy. It does so by using the principle of electromagnetism: a magnetic field moving near a wire causes electricity to flow along the wire. In a generator, an electromagnet (the rotor) rotates inside an electric coil (the stator). The effect induces (creates) an electric current when it is connected to a circuit.

Diagram of a coal-fired power stationDiagram of a coal-fired power station


The rotor inside a generator is connected to a bladed wheel called a turbine. This, in turn, is driven by a power source such as the steam from water heated by burning fossil fuelsnuclear reactionsheat energy from inside the Earth, heat energy from the Sun, or simply the movement of water (waves and tides) or wind. 

In thermal power stations, a fossil fuel such as coal, oil or gas is burned to boil water, producing steam. The steam rushes through pipes, providing the kinetic energy to turn a turbine. Turbines inside a power stationTurbines inside a power station

Diagram of a hydro-electric power stationDiagram of a hydro-electric power station

Hydro-electric power

Hydro-electric power stations use fast-flowing water, flowing downhill under the force of gravity, to turn turbines. The water from rivers is stored in a reservoir behind a dam. The power station is located in front of, or contained inside, the dam. Some of the water from the reservoir is allowed to flow out through inlets below the water level and along pipes, called headraces or penstocks, into the turbines inside the power station. Each turbine has angled blades that are spun by the force of the water rushing past them. A shaft connects the turbines to generators.

Hydro-electricity does not produce greenhouse gases, and the dams are useful both for supplying water to cities and farms and controlling flooding downstream. But the dams can disrupt local wildlife and, because of the enormous weight of water contained in the reservoirs, cause earthquakes.

A “solar furnace”A “solar furnace”


Coal and oil-fired power stations cause pollution. They also emit significant quantites of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere and are considered to be a major cause of global warming and climate change. Fossil fuels, once used up, cannot be replaced. Leaks of radioactivity from nuclear power stations are a potential hazard. So today alternative methods for generating electricity are being turned to.

Wind turbines on wind farms, solar power (in which solar panels store sunlight for conversion to electricity), tidal and wave power are all being used. These, like hydro-electric power, are renewable energy sources, because the energy they produce is replaced naturally.

How electricity reaches homes from a power stationHow electricity reaches homes from a power station

Supplying electricity

The electricity is sent from a power station along thick wires called cables. They are supported above ground by tall pylons. Along the way, transformers raise the voltage of the electric current, because transmitting high-voltage electricity is more efficient. Voltage is a measure of the force needed to make electricity flow.

The electricity goes to substations from where cables carry it to houses, factories, shops and offices. Substations contain transformers, which reduce the voltage of the current so that the electricity can be used in people’s homes. When we plug an electrical appliance into a socket, it connects up to mains electricity.

The cables from a power station are linked to form a country’s supply network or grid. This allows electricity to be sent to wherever it is needed. Electricity cannot be stored, so a constant supply flows through the cables and wires.

Consultant: Chris Oxlade


  • 1882
    The first public power station is opened by Thomas Edison. In order to send power to customers’ homes, Edison also creates the first electric grid.
  • 1883
    The first solar cell is made by American inventor Charles Fritts.
  • 1884
    The first modern steam turbine, a turbine driven by pressurized steam, is invented by British engineer Charles Parsons.
  • 1942
    The first nuclear power station is built at the University of Chicago, USA.
  • 1982
    The first wind farm is put into use in Washington, USA.

See also in Geography

See also in Earth

See also in Technology

See also in Science

The world's first power station was built in the German town of Ettal in 1878. The station consisted of 24 electric generators, driven by a steam engine.

The first public power station was the steam-driven Edison Electric Light Station in London, which started operation in January 1882.

About 90% of all electricity generation in the United States is by use of steam turbines.

Hydro-electric power is the world's largest renewable source of electricity. It accounts for 6% of the world's energy supply and about 15% of the world's electricity. About 99% of Norway's electricity is produced by hydro-electric power stations.

The first use of moving water to produce electricity was a waterwheel on the Fox River in Wisconsin, USA in 1882.

The Three Gorges Dam, a hydro-electric dam that spans the Yangtze River in Hubei province, China, is the world's largest power station. Completed in 2012, its maximum output is 22,500 megawatts (an average-sized coal-fired power station has an output of about 2000 MW).

The largest offshore wind farm in the world is the Walney Wind Farm off the coast of Cumbria, England. It has a maximum output of 367 MW.

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