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Structure Of The Industry

Modern electric utilities have three major organizational components: generation (power plants), transmission (high-voltage bulk power between utilities), and distribution (low-voltage power to ultimate consumers). Modern electric utilities not only produce the power they need for their consumers but also pool and coordinate excess electricity with other utilities.

In 2001, the United States had the ability to produce over 788 million megawatts of electrical energy. Pooling and coordination of electrical energy take place through high-voltage wires that are maintained and referred to as the national grid; high-voltage wires are used because they allow transmission at a lower current, which generates less heat and results in less energy loss. At regional distribution centers closer to the ultimate consumers, the electrical energy is transformed into the low-voltage, higher-current electricity delivered to homes and businesses.

Major electric utilities produce electric power by burning coal, harnessing the hydroelectric energy produced by dams, and initiating and maintaining nuclear fission. Smaller, independent power producers use hydroelectric energy in addition to wood energy, geothermal energy, and biomass, which are all forms of renewable energy. Nuclear electric generating plants were constructed after the passage of the Atomic Energy Act (42 U.S.C.A. § 2011), which removed the government's monopoly over NUCLEAR POWER, in 1946, and the Price-Anderson Act (42 U.S.C.A. § 2210), which allowed for private ownership of uranium, in 1957.

Commercial nuclear energy expanded in the 1960s and the early 1970s, and most consumers welcomed what was thought to be a safe and inexpensive source of energy. From the late 1970s to the 1990s, the dangers of nuclear energy and the expense of environmental contamination and lack of safe waste storage contributed to the end of nuclear power plant construction. No U.S. nuclear power plants have been ordered since 1978. Coal and hydroelectric energy continue to be the principal sources of commercial electric power.

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