Hesperian Health Guides

How Electricity is Produced

In this chapter:

Most electricity today is made by burning fossil fuels (oil, coal, and natural gas). Some energy also comes from nuclear power, and from large dams. To understand why we need clean energy to replace fossil fuels, nuclear power, and energy from large dams, it helps to understand how electricity is made and how it causes harm if it comes from sources that are not clean or renewable.

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Coal is dug from the ground.
The coal goes to a power plant.
The power plant burns the coal to heat water to make steam (and toxic smoke).
The steam turns a machine called a turbine, which makes an electric current (but the toxic smoke is just released into the air.)

Whether from coal, oil, or natural gas and nuclear power, making electricity is all done the same way. First the power source makes heat, which is used to make steam, which turns large turbines to make electricity. Large hydroelectric dams use falling water, rather than steam heat, to turn a turbine to make electricity. But all of these kinds of energy lead to toxic pollution, destruction of communities and watersheds, and many serious health problems. None are healthy or sustainable, especially when they are used on a very large scale.

A smoky factory.

Fossil fuels are growing scarce and becoming more expensive to find. Fossil fuels are nonrenewable, meaning that once they are used up, systems based on them will literally run out of fuel. At the same time, the danger of global warming and pollution from burning fossil fuels has grown to become a serious environmental health problem for every single person and place in the world.

Health problems from producing energy

Burning fossil fuels in large power plants is the way most electricity is made. Digging up and burning fossil fuels pollutes air, soil, and water, leading to respiratory and skin problems. It also produces toxic chemicals that cause cancer and birth defects (see Oil Causes Serious Health Problems). Our use of fossil fuels leads to global warming, and to wars for control of oil resources.

A dam causes a valley to flood, covering a village.

Big hydroelectric energy (using water from large dams to make electricity) leads to people being forced to leave their homes, go hungry, and lose valuable land, and causes an increase in diseases such as malaria and schistosomiasis. Small dams have many fewer problems.

Containers labelled with a 3 triangle nuclear sign.

Nuclear energy is very dangerous because of the toxic materials it uses, the threat of accidents, and the harmful waste it leaves behind, causing health problems for many generations. Nuclear energy is not clean energy.

High voltage wires strung beside farmland and homes.

High voltage wires (the cables that carry electricity from where it is made to where it is used) can cause health problems such as cancer of the blood (leukemia) and other cancers. It is best not to build homes very close to high voltage wires, especially directly beneath them.

High voltage wires are just as dangerous when used with clean energy as with fossil fuels. Making energy locally, which is an important part of clean energy, reduces the need for high-voltage wires.

This page was updated:05 Jan 2024