Ways to generate electricity

Trying to think systematically about electricity, I am making a list of all the basic ways it can be produced. Here is what I have so far:

Most of our power plants are of the first kind, using kinetic energy from falling water, wind, or hot water boiled using nuclear or fossil fuels. There is a smattering of PV capacity around, and wave power stations might eventually use piezoelectricity. Chemically generated electric current has niche applications and thermocouples are used along with radioactive materials to power some satellites.

Are there any basic forms I am missing here? Are any of these actually manifestations of the same phenomenon?

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

11 thoughts on “Ways to generate electricity”

  1. The World’s First Osmotic Power Plant

    “Her Royal Highness Crown Princess Mette-Marit of Norway officially opened the world’s first osmotic power plant prototype on November 24. The prototype has a limited production capacity and will be used primarily for testing and data validation, leading to the construction of a commercial power plant in a few years time. Statkraft claims that the technology has the global potential to generate clean, renewable energy equivalent to China’s total electricity consumption in 2002 or half of the EU’s total power production” What’s osmotic power? Wikipedia to the rescue!

  2. The Future of Smart Energy

    These are just a few of the groundbreaking energy innovations that are now developing and might change our future. For more resources on what’s on the horizon for energy, check out the following:


    On the Horizon: Six Sources of Limitless Energy? by Gardiner Morse

    Tapping into Ocean Energy by Matt Simmons

    The Greening of Petrobras by José Sergio Gabrielli de Azevedo

    Andrew Winston’s regular blog on sustainable business practices


    McKinsey Quarterly on Energy

    New York Times’ Green Business Blog

    Financial Times’ Energy Source Blog

    Popular Science’s Energy Feed

    PhysOrg Energy News

    Wall Street Journal’s Energy Headlines

  3. Power from the sea
    Second time around…
    Ocean heat may be used to generate electricity

    EVEN by the standards of American bureaucracy, an organisation that operated for 13 years without achieving anything is impressive. Yet that was the fate of the Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) permit office, which opened its doors in 1981 and closed them in 1994, having issued not a single OTEC permit.

    The office was part of NOAA, America’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—a marine counterpart of the country’s space agency, NASA. And the idea of OTEC was to exploit the difference in temperature between the top of the ocean and the bottom, in order to drive turbines and generate electricity. The incentive was the oil-price spike of the 1970s. But once that incentive went away, so did interest in alternative sources of power and, eventually, so too did the office.

    Alternative power sources are back in fashion, though, and OTEC is one of them. A range of companies, from giants such as Lockheed Martin to minnows like the Ocean Thermal Energy Corporation of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, are working on the technology, and this time it might actually come to pass. Most of the bits and pieces required can be borrowed from other areas of engineering, such as deepwater oil drilling. And the idea of a power station whose fuel is free is attractive, as long as the capital cost is not too high.

  4. High-altitude drones have also been proposed as a way to generate electricity, because strong winds blow more reliably well above the ground. Known as wind drones or energy kites, such aircraft are tethered so that cables can deliver the electricity back to the ground. Makani, a startup acquired by Google in 2013, reckons a single energy kite can generate 50% more electricity than a single wind turbine while using only 10% of the materials. Each Makani energy kite, which resembles a wing with eight propellers, weighs 11 tonnes, compared with about 100 tonnes for a comparable 600kW turbine. This approach is being pursued by other firms too, including Ampyx Power and Kite Power Systems, both backed by E.ON, a German utility. Tethered drones on a smaller scale are also being considered for indoor use in warehouses, where they might help with stocktaking. Flying indoors neatly sidesteps many regulatory problems, and supplying power via tethers does away with the need for recharging. But GPS cannot be used for positioning.

  5. Green energy advocates may soon be turning blue. A new membrane could unlock the potential of ‘blue energy,’ which uses chemical differences between fresh- and saltwater to generate electricity. If researchers can scale up the postage stamp — size membrane in an affordable fashion, it could provide carbon-free power to millions of people in coastal nations where freshwater rivers meet the sea. Blue energy’s promise stems from its scale: Rivers dump some 37,000 cubic kilometers of freshwater into the oceans every year. This intersection between fresh- and saltwater creates the potential to generate lots of electricity — 2.6 terawatts, according to one recent estimate, roughly the amount that can be generated by 2,000 nuclear power plants.



  6. Soaking up the sun: Artificial photosynthesis promises clean, sustainable source of energy

    Humans can do lots of things that plants can’t do. But plants have one major advantage over humans: They can make energy directly from the sun. That process of turning sunlight directly into usable energy – called photosynthesis – may soon be a feat humans are able to mimic to harness the sun’s energy for clean, storable, efficient fuel. If so, it could open a whole new frontier of clean energy.

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