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How Power Plants Work

Electricity is actually the flow or movement of electrons through a material. Electric generating plants typically produce electricity using magnetic conduction. This happens when a large number of conductive wires are spun around inside a magnetic field, causing electrons to move (i.e., electricity to flow).

In a generating plant, the potential energy of various types of fuels (fossil, nuclear, or renewable) is converted into another form of energy (usually mechanical or heat energy). This energy is used to turn fan-like blades inside a turbine. These blades are attached to a pole-like shaft. When the blades inside the turbine begin to turn, the shaft begins to turn. This causes wires located inside a magnetic field within the generator to turn. The resulting flow of electrons is electricity. More or less electricity can be created by varying certain factors including: the type of materials used in the wire, the speed at which the turbine rotates, the size of the magnetic field, and the number of wire coils inside the magnetic field, among others.

Wires coming from the generator are used to conduct the flow of electricity out to a neighboring switchyard, where the electricity is “stepped up” (i.e., the voltage is raised) so that it can be sent to customers.

Steam-electric plants produce electricity by using heat energy to turn water into steam. The highly pressurized steam then travels through pipes to the blades in the turbine. When the steam hits the turbine, it causes the blades to spin.

Hydroelectric generating facilities use mechanical energy (i.e., the movement of water) to cause the blades in the turbine to turn.

In a steam-electric solar generating facility, heat from the sun’s rays is used to create the steam that is needed to rotate the turbine.

Fossil Plants

Steam-electric plants produce energy by using some form of heat energy to turn water into steam. The highly pressurized steam then travels through pipes to fan-like blades in a turbine. The turbine begins to turn, causing giant wire coils inside the generator to turn. This creates an electromagnetic field, which forces electrons to move and starts the flow of electricity.

In a steam-electric fossil-fired plant, some type of fossil fuel is burned to create the heat that is needed to produce steam. Fossil fuels include coal, oil (also called petroleum) and natural gas. The fossil fuels were formed millions of years ago from plants and animals that died and decomposed beneath tons of soil and rock.

A gas-fired turbine does not use steam. It works similar to a jet airplane engine. Natural gas is ignited and burned. The heat creates pressure that turns the turbine.

Nuclear Plants

Nuclear plants use the fission process to generate the energy needed to produce electricity. In a nuclear plant, atoms of low-grade uranium are split apart. This creates the heat needed to create steam.

The highly pressurized steam then travels through pipes to fan-like blades in a turbine. The turbine begins to turn, causing giant wire coils inside the generator to turn. This creates an electromagnetic field, which forces electrons to move and starts the flow of electricity.

Renewable Energy

Renewable energy resources naturally replenish themselves and tend to have the fewest direct effects on the environment. They are virtually inexhaustible in duration but limited in the amount of energy that is available per unit of time. Renewable energy resources include: biomass (burning waste products), hydro (water), geothermal, solar, wind, ocean thermal, wave action, and tidal action.

Nuclear Plant graphic
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