How Do Turbines Work?

Have you ever wondered how places like the Hoover Dam or those huge windmills generate electricity? In the most basic terms, nearly all types of power plants convert kinetic energy (energy caused by motion) into electricity. Some use moving wind, others use moving water, while still others use pressurized steam.

The key piece of this conversion process is usually a turbine of some kind. Turbines are propeller-like devices which are placed in the flow path of a moving substance like wind or water. Turbines have a series of blades which are set at an angle in order to create resistance to whatever is moving past them. The force of the substance striking and flowing past the turbine’s blades causes it to spin. A shaft, or spindle, is attached to the turbine, which then transfers the energy of the spinning turbine to a generator. The generator converts that mechanical energy into electricity. Power lines connected to the generator carry the electricity through a large network of substations and smaller lines, and finally to our homes, schools, and businesses.

Turbines have been around for a very long time. Those large wooden water wheels that old sawmills used are a very simple type of turbine. They don’t run anywhere near the speeds of many modern turbines, but they still use the same principle of harnessing the kinetic energy of falling water and putting it to use.

Turbines are used in many other forms of electrical generation, too. Coal-fired, biomass, gas, nuclear, and even some kinds of solar energy production rely on turbines to generate electricity. Most often, these types of power plants heat water to boiling in order to create steam. Pressurized steam is forced through a series of pipes to a turbine where it exerts force on the turbine’s blades, causing it to spin. Just like with a hydroelectric turbine, a shaft, or spindle, connects the turbine to an electrical generator which creates electricity.