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Electric Power

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Imagine that you’re in charge of deciding which type of fuel should be used to generate electricity at your town’s power plant. Typical alternative energy sources are not available in your area. Your challenge is to determine which type of fuel you would choose to power your city.

Planning and Carrying Out Investigations

Electric Power Brochure

Electric Power Brochure

How is electrical energy typically produced?

Electrical energy is typically produced by burning some type of fuel to heat water, and using the steam from the water to turn a turbine. The turbine is connected to the shaft of a generator that contains copper coils. The copper coils are rotated between strong magnets, producing a changing magnetic field. This alternating field makes electrons flow in the copper wires, a process called electromagnetic induction.

What are some fuels used to power electrical energy plants?

Many different types of fuels are used to power electrical energy plants. Coal is the most common fuel, and is burned to heat up water, producing water vapor that turns a turbine. Natural gas and petroleum can be obtained from reservoirs deep underground and burned too. Propane is a gas that is a byproduct of refining petroleum and natural gas, and it too can be burned for fuel. Nuclear plants use heat generated from controlled nuclear reactions to heat up water, which then evaporates into steam and turns a turbine. Biomass is fuel made up of recently living organisms that can be burned as fuel. The most common type of biomass is wood from trees or bushes.

What are the major costs associated with the production of electrical energy?

The most obvious cost associated with producing electricity is the cost of the fuel itself. There is also a cost associated with disposing of the fuel after it has been burned. This is especially true for nuclear waste; after the nuclear waste has been used, it is still potentially harmful to the environment, and must be transported and placed in a large containment vessel so that it doesn't emit any harmful radiation. With highly technical jobs such as nuclear energy production, workers often must receive expensive training in order to know how to safely run the power plant. Additionally, power plants cost money to build and maintain.

Why are carbon dioxide emissions important?

Many traditional methods of electrical energy production release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide, or CO2, is a "greenhouse gas," or a gas that helps keep heat energy inside the atmosphere. If CO2 is produced at a rate greater than it can be removed from the atmosphere by natural cycles, global warming takes place, where the average temperature of the earth rises.

What is the difference between a limited and unlimited natural resource?

An unlimited natural resource is a resource that is derived from nature and will never run out. Examples of unlimited natural resources would be wind and solar power. A limited natural resource is a resource that is derived from nature, but will eventually run out, like natural gas or petroleum.


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Tier 2 Lessons: Grades 7 - 12+