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Green Power: Generation Technology

There are many ways to generate electricity. Most electric power plants in the United States generate electricity by creating steam to turn a turbine.

Photovoltaics Solar cells (also called photovoltaic or PV systems) convert light energy directly to electric current. When light strikes the cell, energy is absorbed within a semiconductor material, freeing electrons. Impurities within the semiconductor material force these electrons to flow in a certain direction. This creates an electric current. To learn more about solar cells, visit How Stuff Works - Solar Cells.

Fuel Cells A fuel cell converts hydrogen and oxygen into water, producing electricity and heat through a chemical process. Electric current is produced as electrons are separated from hydrogen gas on the anode side of the cell, while recombining with hydrogen and oxygen to form water on the cathode side. The fuels that power fuel cells can come from either renewable sources (such as hydrogen produced by wind-generated electricity) or non-renewable sources (such as natural gas). To learn more about fuel cells, visit How Stuff Works - Fuel Cells.

Turbines A turbine generator works by rotating a series of magnets inside coils of wire (or vice versa) to produce electric current. The magnetic field created between the coil and the magnets creates an electric current. The turbine's blades may be moved by steam, water or wind. Many variations on this basic design exist. Many types of green power, such as wind and hydropower, use turbines as the generating technology. For more information about wind turbines, visit Wind Energy Basics. To learn more about hydropower turbines, visit How Stuff Works - Hydropower.

Combustion and Cogeneration Combustion power plants burn fuels to heat water, thereby creating steam that turns turbines to produce electric current. Cogeneration plants improve the efficiency of combustion power plants by using the waste heat from the combustion process for other purposes. Combustion power plants use a wide variety of fuel sources, including coal, oil, natural gas, tires and biomass.

Nuclear Nuclear power plants maintain a controlled nuclear reaction to heat water to create steam, which then turns turbines to produce electric current. In a nuclear reaction, the uranium -235 atoms undergo nuclear fission, releasing heat and gamma radiation. The heat is transferred to steam that drives turbines. A radiation shield within a large containment structure surrounds the reactor core and contains the gamma radiation. To learn more about nuclear power, visit How Stuff Works - Nuclear Power.

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