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What energy sources are used to generate electricity?

A turbine can be turned by many different sources of energy. These vary widely and include fossil fuels, water and wind.

A most common way to generate electricity throughout the world is with high temperature and pressure steam from boiling water. Many different fuels can be burned to heat the water including wood, coal, oil and natural gas. In a nuclear generating plant, a process called nuclear fission creates the heat by splitting uranium atoms.

With our abundant water, coal and natural gas resources, it is not surprising that the most common forms of electricity generation in Canada are hydroelectric followed by thermal coal and gas-fired generation.

In recent years, generation from these traditional fuels has been supplemented with a growing list of emerging technologies that use the sun, wind and even biomass to produce electricity.

Primary among these technologies are wind turbines and photovoltaic or solar cells. Fuel cells are also emerging as possible energy sources for homes, businesses and automobiles.

So far, these new technologies are both costly and limited in their capacities.

Most of the electricity produced in Canada comes from three main fuel sources: water, nuclear fission and fossil fuels, primarily coal. As this chart shows, in 2004, 96 per cent of our electricity came from these three sources.

Although turbines and generators are the basic machinery used to produce electricity, the technology differs somewhat based on the energy source. There are two main categories of generation:

  • hydroelectric generation, which uses falling water to turn the turbines
  • steam generation, which uses fossil fuels or nuclear fission to heat water to make the steam that turns the turbines

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