America – and much of the world -- is becoming increasingly electrified. Today, more than half of the electricity generated in the United States comes from coal. For the foreseeable future, coal will continue to be the dominant fuel used for electric power production. The low cost and abundance of coal is one of the primary reasons why consumers in the United States benefit from some of the lowest electricity rates of any free-market economy.
The Department’s Office of Fossil Energy is working on ways to keep coal in America’s electricity future. The key challenge is to remove the environmental objections to the use of coal in tomorrow’s power plants. New technologies being developed in the Fossil Energy program could virtually eliminate the sulfur, nitrogen, and mercury pollutants released when coal is burned. It may also be possible to capture greenhouse gases emitted from coal-fired power plants and prevent them from contributing to global warming concerns.
Research is also underway to increase the fuel efficiency of coal-fueled power plants. Today’s plants convert only a third of coal’s energy potential to electricity. New technologies in Energy’s Fossil Energy program could nearly double efficiency levels in the next 10-15 years. Higher efficiencies mean even more affordable electricity and fewer greenhouse gases.
While coal is the nation’s major fuel for electric power, natural gas is the fastest growing fuel. More than 90 percent of the power plants to be built in the next 20 years will likely be fueled by natural gas. Natural gas is also likely to be a primary fuel for distributed power generators – mini-power plants that would be sited close to where the electricity is needed.
Energy’s Fossil Energy program is developing natural gas-powered fuel cells for future distributed generation applications. Fuel cells use hydrogen that can be extracted from natural gas or perhaps in the future from biomass or coal.
Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology sponsors R&D programs aimed at maintaining the operating capability of the nation’s existing nuclear power plants and developing the next generation of nuclear technologies. Nuclear energy is our nation's largest source of emission-free electricity. The 103 U.S. nuclear units supply about 20 percent of the electricity produced in the United States – second only to coal as a fuel source. The Nuclear Energy program is working to develop cost-efficient technologies that further enhance nuclear safety, minimize the generation of nuclear waste, and further reduce the risk of proliferation.
The United States’ electricity infrastructure is one of the greatest engineering marvels of the 20th century. However, to meet the rising electric power demand of the 21st century, significant improvements in America’s electric system are necessary. Blackouts serve as a powerful reminder of the critical role electricity plays in the everyday lives of people. The mission of the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability is to lead national effort to modernize the electric grid, enhance security and reliability of the energy infrastructure, and facilitate recovery from disruptions to the energy supply.
In addition, the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability seeks to develop new technologies for the storage of energy and the transmission of energy that will contribute to energy efficiency of the electric industry. For instance, the copper wires used in typical transmission lines lose a percentage of the electricity passing through them because of resistance, which causes the wires to heat up. But "superconducting" materials have no resistance, and if they are used to transmit electricity in the future, very little of the electricity will be lost.
For statistical information relating to electricity it produces, visit the Energy Information Administration.