Electricity Generation Meaning, History, and Methods

Electricity generation is the act of deriving or producing power from any of various energy sources. This article discusses electricity generation meaning, history, and methods as outlined below;

-What Does It Mean to Generate Electricity? Electricity Generation Meaning

-History of Electricity Generation

-How Do We Generate Electricity? 6 Ways to Generate Electricity






What Does It Mean to Generate Electricity? Electricity Generation Meaning

The term ‘generate electricity’ can be defined under the concept of electricity generation, which is the process by which electric power is produced from primary energy sources [4].

These sources of energy can be used to further define electricity generation, as follows;

Electricity generation is the production of electric power from sources such as fossil fuels and renewable elements.

The purpose for which we may generate electricity, can also be used in the definition;

Electricity generation is the process of producing electric power for direct transmission and distribution, or for storage [12].

Another possible way to define electricity generation, is in terms of the burning of fuels, which is known to be a cause of climate change and global warming.

Electricity generation is the result of burning natural fuels like coal, petroleum, natural gas, nuclear fuel, and biomass, within a technological mechanism that is designed to produce power from these fuels.

The concept of electromagnetism is a very important one, with regards to the process(es) required to generate electricity.

Electricity generation is the production of power, often from an electric generator, and as a result of the rotation of a conductive coil in a magnetic field.

Various forms of energy conversion are known to occur, as part of procedures required to generate electricity. This understanding can also be used to define electricity generation, as done below;

Electricity generation is the process of producing electric power by the conversion of various forms of energy like solar, hydro, wind, nuclear, chemical, bioenergy, thermal and mechanical energy.

Finally, we can describe electricity generation based on the technologies and equipment that are used to generate electricity;

Electricity generation is the use of generators, gas turbines, dams, wind turbines, geothermal systems, and solar panels to produce electric power through a series of energy conversions.


History of Electricity Generation

Efforts to generate electricity can be traced back to the fifteenth century.

The word “electricity” was coined in 1600 by William Gilbert [17] based on the observation that electric currents are produced as a result of the flow of electrons.  

In 1752, the kite experiment by Benjamin Franklin proved the existence of static electricity [13]. The observations in this experiment were contributive to the understanding of the processes that generate electricity.

Advancements in electricity studies were significant during the nineteenth century.

The first electric battery was invented by Alessandro Volta in 1800 [2].

In 1831, the British physicist Michael Faraday showed that electromagnetic fields can generate electricity [15].

This concept of electromagnetism is the basis of operation of electric generators, and includes a rotating conductor in a magnetic field.

electric generator turbine generator generate electricity
A Turbine Electric Generator used to Generate Electricity (Credit: NRC 2008)


In line with the electromagnetic design, Thomas Davenport invented the first electric motor in 1837 [18].  

Using a dynamo-based steam turbine, Thomas Edison built the first central power station in 1882 [16]. The station, located at Pearl Street, Manhattan, was designed to generate electricity on a large scale.

Powered by coal-driven engines, the central station produced direct current (DC), which was used for public lighting in New York.

Within this same period, efforts to improve the energy efficiency of electricity led to the discovery of alternating current (AC) by Nikola Tesla [9].

This type of current electricity was derived by the modification of direct current (DC), and is usable for a wider range of applications. Power inverters were also developed as a tool for changing DC to AC.

Nuclear energy was put into use as a means to generate electricity, in 1951, with the completion of the first power-producing nuclear reactor in Idaho [11].

Electrification of homes began in the 1920s, both in Europe and America.

With the advent of sustainable development, attention was drawn to the potential harmful effects of many energy resources on the environment.

This, alongside hazardous occurrences in relation to electricity generation (especially in the nuclear sector), has facilitated efforts to develop renewable and low-carbon energy resources.

The form of renewable energy which is most used to generate electricity is solar energy.


How Do We Generate Electricity? 6 Ways to Generate Electricity

Ways to generate electricity include electromagnetism, electrochemistry, photoelectricity, thermoelectricity, pressure-application and friction.

These six ways are discussed below;


1). Electromagnetism As A Way to Generate Electricity

Electromagnetism is one of the ways to generate electricity.

This is possible because of the dynamic nature of electrons. Metals such as copper, possess some loosely-held electrons that can be mobilized when brought in contact with a magnetic field.

As a result of this, when an electron-carrying conductor is rotated in a magnetic field, the influence of magnetism on the electrons will cause them to flow continuously, thereby generating electricity.

The principle of electromagnetism is used in electric generators [6], which are a primary component of power-generating technologies like hydroelectricity, wind turbines and geothermal systems.

It is also important to observe that electromagnetism involves the conversion of mechanical energy to electrical power.

In many cases, other conversions may also occur in the electromagnetic process, such as the conversion of thermal energy to mechanical energy.

electromagnetism electromagnetic effect generate electricity
Electromagnetism As A Way to Generate Electricity (Credit: Stannered 2007 .CC BY-SA 3.0.)


2). Electrochemistry As A Way to Generate Electricity

Electrochemistry is a field of science which is concerned with the conversion of chemical energy to electricity.

This conversion is possible because chemical energy is produced from chemical reactions, that mostly involve the flow and transfer of electrons.

The most common types of chemical reactions that produce electricity are reduction and oxidation (redox).

In order to simulate such reactions, a setup known as an electrochemical cell is used. This cell comprises of metallic electrodes that are placed in an electrolyte (a conductive fluid) [14].

When chemical reactions occur in the cell, electrons flow from one electrode to the other, in the electrolyte.  Batteries are an example of a chemical cell.

generate electricity electrochemical cell
Electrochemical Cell used to Generate Electricity (Credit: Ohiostandard 2019 .CC BY-SA 4.0.)


3). Photoelectric Method As A Way to Generate Electricity

Photoelectricity is a phenomenon that illustrates the conversion of light energy to electricity [20].

Also known as the photoelectric or photovoltaic effect, this conversion occurs because light contains energized particles known as photons, which can mobilize electrons when they strike an electron-carrier.

The most common use of photoelectricity is represented by solar panels, which effectively convert solar energy (light) to electricity, through electron-mobilization.

Solar panels produce electricity in the form of direct current (DC), which must be converted to alternating current (AC) before it is suitable for most applications [3].

A power inverter is used to achieve DC to AC conversion, while a battery can be used to temporarily store the power that has been produced.


4). Thermoelectricity As A Way to Generate Electricity

The concept of thermoelectricity, involves producing electricity, from thermal energy or heat [8].

A group of materials known as thermoelectric materials, are used to generate electricity directly from heat [7].

In most cases, a thermoelectric material will generate electricity when exposed to a temperature gradient [1], whereby one end of the material has a significantly different temperature from another end of the material.

Such as scenario as described above, causes electrons to flow from one end to another, under the influence of temperature, thereby producing electricity.

Two main qualities of thermoelectric materials are low thermal conductivity, and high electrical conductivity [5].

Examples of thermoelectric materials include alloys like Lead Telluride (PbTe), Bismuth Telluride (Bi2Te3), and Silicon-Germanium (SiGe) [10].

Through thermoelectricity, waste heat from industrial processes can be conserved and used to produce electricity.

There are other mechanisms by which thermal energy can be converted to electricity.

Cogeneration technology, also known as Combined Heat and Power (CHP) technology, uses waste heat usually derived from the combustion of fuel, to generate electricity.

Geothermal pumps and solar water heaters can also be used used for the same purpose.

It must be noted, that aside thermoelectric materials, other heat-driven ways to generate electricity, usually involve a combination of other methods like electromagnetism, to carry out the conversion of thermal energy to electricity.


5). Pressure-Application As A Way to Generate Electricity

Piezoelectricity is electricity produced as a result of the application of pressure.

Materials with piezoelectric properties are capable of converting mechanical energy (that is exerted when pressure is applied) to electric currents.

Examples of such materials include quartz (SiO2), and ceramics like lead zirconate titanate (PbZrTiO3), barium titanate (BaTiO3), and lead titanate (PbTiO3) [19].


6). Friction As A Way to Generate Electricity

Friction can be used to generate electricity, because it can create charges on the surface of a material.

The type of electricity that is generated by friction is called static electricity, because it comprises of immobile charges that have not been mobilized.

When friction produces electricity, the phenomenon is called triboelectricity. The process by which friction is used to generate electricity is also known as the triboelectric effect.

Various efforts have been made to harness friction for the generation of electricity on a significant scale.



The concept of electricity generation is comprised of methods and technologies used to generate electricity.

Ways to generate electricity include;

1. Electromagnetism  

2. Electrochemistry  

3. Photoelectric Method  

4. Thermoelectricity

5. Pressure-Application  

6. Friction


The cheapest way to generate electricity is through solar. This is based on the fact that solar technologies can deliver a significant amount of electricity over a period of time, without any active investment in terms of energy resource and maintenance.

Other cheap ways to generate electricity include wind and natural gas.



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