Electricity generation and distribution has been described as the most important technology development in human history. Electricity is an essential part of today's society and culture and plays a role in almost every human activity and advancement.
The technologies used to generate electricity today derive their energy from three groups of resources – fossil fuels, such as coal, natural gas and oil; nuclear materials; and renewable sources, including solar, wind, hydropower, geothermal and biomass energy.
Fossil fuels have been an integral component of the power generation portfolio since commercial electricity's inception in the late nineteenth century. Today, fossil fuel plants account for more than 60 percent of the world's electricity production and are a reliable source of power with low operating costs. Research and development efforts can help utilities reduce emissions from current assets and build new and increasingly efficient and operationally flexible generating units with advanced emissions control technologies.
The commercial use of nuclear energy to generate electricity began in the 1950s and currently accounts for about 14% of the world's electricity production. More than 400 nuclear reactors operate around the world in 30 countries, and several more countries are pursuing nuclear power. Nuclear power plants are reliable generation sources, often operating for 18-24 months without shutting down. Further, because the energy is derived from the fission of a nucleus and not from chemical combustion, emissions are minimal. Research and technology can help address the key challenges of high capital costs, management of radioactive waste, and the aging of plant components and materials.
Evolving energy policies, changes in power markets and rapid technology improvements make it ever more important for electricity generators to include and expand renewable generation resources in their asset mix. As these renewable resources become increasingly integrated with the grid, environmental impacts relative to land use, vegetation management, species and ecosystem interaction and human health and safety must be considered. EPRI is assessing the status, performance, and cost of renewable generating technologies and providing a variety of critical information for the comparison, selection, operation and maintenance of these resources.