The Generator

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Alternating current can be generated by a rotating coil of wire inside a powerful magnet, as shown in above Figure. An ac voltage appears between the ends of the wire coil. The ac voltage that a generator can produce depends on the strength of the magnet, the number of turns in the wire coil, and the speed at which the magnet or coil rotates. The ac frequency depends only on the speed of rota-tion. Normally, for utility ac, this speed is 3600 revolutions per minute (rpm), or 60 complete revolutions per second (rps), so the ac output frequency is 60 Hz.

When a load, such as a light bulb or heater, is connected to an ac generator, it becomes more difficult, mechanically, to turn the generator shaft, compared to when there is nothing connected to the output. As the amount of electrical power demanded from a generator increases, so does the mechanical power required to drive it. This is why it is impossible to connect a generator to a stationary bicycle and pedal an entire city into electrification. There’s no way to get something for nothing.

The electrical power that comes out of a generator can never be more than the mechanical power driving it. In fact, there is always some energy lost, mainly as heat in the generator. Your legs might generate enough power to run a small radio or television set, but nowhere near enough to provide electricity for a household.

The efficiency of a generator is the ratio of the electrical power output to the mechanical driving power, both measured in the same units (such as watts or kilowatts), multiplied by 100 to get a percentage. No generator is 100 percent efficient, but a good one can come fairly close.

At power plants, generators are driven by massive turbines. The turbines are turned by various natural sources of energy such as moving water, steam heated by combustion of fossil fuels, or steam taken directly from deep inside the earth. These energy sources can provide tremendous mechanical power, and this is why power plants can produce megawatts of electrical power.