Question Asked by Megan, 4th Grade, Rimrock Elementary
Answered by Vaughn Rasmussen, Senior Customer and Community Manager, Rocky Mountain Power in Idaho
Rocky Mountain Power generates electricity for its customers in Ammon, together with the other areas we serve, from a number of different sources. Our power plants generate electricity in similar ways. They use a natural resource, such as coal, water, wind, natural gas, or geothermal heat from the earth to turn an electric generator. A generator is large magnet that spins, surrounded by coils of copper wire. As the magnetic field passes through the coils of wire, electrons flow, producing the electricity we all use every day. Another growing resource is solar energy, which can be used to produce electricity directly from solar panels, or to create steam to turn a generator.
Coal plants heat water to produce steam, which drives a machine called a turbine, which looks and works a lot like a toy pinwheel. The steam travels in pipes to the turbine and pushes against the turbine blades, just the like the wind causes the pinwheel to turn. The turbine is connected to the generator, spinning the magnet and producing electricity.
A hydroelectric dam uses the force of falling water against a turbine to turn the magnet inside the generator.
Natural gas power plants use machines a lot like jet airliner engines to spin the magnet in the generator. Many of these plants also use the hot exhaust from the jet engines to produce steam for a separate turbine and generator.
Wind plants operate very much on the toy pinwheel concept, with the wind turbine blades turning with the force of the wind. Inside the center part of the wind turbine is a system of gears connected to turn the generator and produce electricity.
Geothermal plants use hot water deep in the earth, heated by melted rock, called magma. Wells are drilled to tap this hot water, which flashes to steam when it reaches the surface. Again, the steam turns a turbine and the magnet inside the generator. Additional electricity is generated from the hot water through a special heat recovery process.
Solar power is a growing part of the company’s system, but today is a very small part of the energy the company delivers to customers. Most solar power today comes from individual customers or businesses who get help from Rocky Mountain Power through cash incentive programs or support from government agencies through tax credits. In 2014, Rocky Mountain Power announced it will to build a large solar project in central or southern Utah to expand our solar power capability.
Our power plants are located throughout our service area in Idaho, Utah and Wyoming; and in Oregon and Washington. One of the company’s early power plants is located close to you: the company’s Ashton hydroelectric plant on the Henry’s Fork River, just west of the town of Ashton. It was built starting in 1914 and completed in 1918. Rocky Mountain Power rebuilt the dam in 2011 and 2012 so it could continue to generate electricity for many more years.
Regarding your question about the wind plants near Idaho Falls, several different companies own these projects. Rocky Mountain Power buys the power from one of them, the Wolverine Creek project, and we deliver that electricity to our customers in Idaho and the other states we serve.
Be a Wind Detective
As the sun warms up the ground, some areas get hotter than others. As hot air pockets rise, cooler air rushes in to take its place. This movement to fill in the pockets of warmer rising air with cooler sinking air creates the wind cycle.
In most areas around homes and schools, there are wind tunnels and wind shadows. Wind tunnels are the areas of faster moving air that is not interrupted by objects like trees or buildings. A wind shadow is found in sheltered areas where wind is obstructed from being able to do its work.
Materials: one small piece of tape, unsharpened pencil, long thin piece of tissue paper or ribbon
- Create a wind detector by taping a piece of tissue to the end of a pencil.
- Where do you think you will find the most energy from the wind (wind tunnels)? Where will you find the least (wind shadows)?
- Using your wind detector, go around your yard or schoolyard to measure wind tunnels and wind shadows. Where would be the best place to put a wind turbine?