Electricity is all around us. Whether it’s our bedroom lamp, our favorite gaming system, or the fridge that holds all of our favorite snacks, electricity powers them all. These days it even powers many of our cars. You could travel to the most uninhabited areas of the earth and still find it in the clouds above you during a storm. Electricity takes different forms: coal, water, solar, wind, nuclear, hydro and solar. But have you ever wondered what exactly electricity is made of or how it manages to get to your house? Learning and understanding where electricity comes from and how we are able to consume it allows us to better manage our usage and be more mindful of our resources.
What Is Electricity?
Electricity is a secondary energy source that we get from the conversion of other sources of energy such as coal, natural gas, oil, nuclear power, and so on. These sources are known as “primary sources.” Primary sources can be renewable or non-renewable, but the electricity itself is neither.1
How Is Electricity Made?
Like everything else, electricity is made up of atoms. So to understand electricity, it helps to understand basic information about atoms.
At the center of an atom is the nucleus. The nucleus is made up of particles called protons and neutrons. Electrons revolve around the nucleus in shells. The protons and electrons of an atom are attracted to each other and each carries an electrical charge. Protons have a positive charge and electrons have a negative charge. The positive charge of the protons is equal to the negative charge of the electrons, making the atom balanced when they have an equal number of protons and electrons. Neutrons carry no electric charge and their number may vary.
The electrons in the shell closest to the nucleus have a strong attraction to the protons. Sometimes the electrons in an atom’s outermost shells do not have a strong attraction to the protons and can be pushed out of their orbits causing them to shift from one atom to another. These shifting electrons are electricity.2
How Does Electricity Work?
Electricity travels in closed circuits. It has to have a complete path before electrons can move through it. When you turn on a light by flipping a switch, you close a circuit. Of course, this means that by flipping a switch off, you open a circuit. Electricity flows from the electric wire, through the light, and back into the wire. The same concept applies to your television or your appliances-- when you turn them on, you close a circuit for electricity to flow through the wires and power them.1
Sources of Electrical Energy
More than one-fourth of the total known world coal reserves are in the United States. Though our dependence upon coal is on a decrease, we still rely on it to produce electricity. The process in which electricity is generated through coal is known as a “pulverized coal combustion system” (PCC) where coal is milled into a fine powder and is blown into a combustion chamber of a boiler and burnt at a high temperature. The gases and heat energy produced then converts water into steam. This steam then passes through a turbine containing thousand of blades that look similar to propellers. At the end of these propellers, there is a generator mounted at one of the turbine shafts and contains carefully wound coils. Electricity is then generated when these are rapidly rotated in a strong magnetic field. After the steam passes through the turbine, it is condensed and returned to the boiler to be heated again. The electricity generated is transformed into higher voltages and is mostly used for economic and efficient transmission via power line grids. By the time it reaches our homes, the electricity is transformed down to much safer 100 to 250 voltage systems.3
Wind energy is renewable and harnesses the energy generated by wind through the use of wind turbines that convert it into electricity. Wind, technically, is a byproduct of differences in temperature and is generated from the uneven heating of the atmosphere, mountains, valleys, and the revolution of the planets around the sun.
Wind turbines work the opposite way that fans do-- instead of using electricity to create wind, wind turbines use wind to make electricity. The wind turns the blades which spin a shaft that is connected to a generator and produces electricity.
Nuclear energy comes from the energy in the core of an atom. Power plants use a process called “nuclear fission”-- the splitting of an atom-- to create energy. Some nuclear power plants use uranium atoms which are split when they are hit by a neutron, releasing heat and radiation, creating more neutrons. Once neutrons collide with other uranium atoms, the process repeats itself all over again. This chain reaction is controlled in nuclear power plants to produce heat. When combined with water, the heat produces steam which is then used to generate electricity that we can use in our homes.
How Does Electricity Get To Your Home?
Where electricity comes from and where consumers get their energy varies. Some utility companies generate all the energy they sell only using the power plants they own. Others may purchase electricity directly from other utility companies, power marketers, and independent power producers from a wholesale market organized by a regional transmission reliability organization. All the little details aside, electricity reaches the consumer in very similar ways.
The Process of Delivering Electricity
The electricity that power plants generate is delivered to consumers over transmission and distribution power lines. This complex system sometimes called the “grid” includes substations, transformers, and power lines that connect electricity producers and consumers. In the United States alone, the electricity grid contains thousands of miles of high-voltage power lines and millions of low-voltage power lines with transformers that connect thousands of power plants to millions of consumers across the country.4
High voltage power lines that are hung between large metal towers are able to carry electricity over long distances, whereas lower voltage electricity is transmitted through transformers which increase or decrease voltages to adjust to different stages of the journey from the power plant to your home or business.4
The difference between one month’s reading and the next is the number of energy units that have been used that billing period. To help you save on your energy bill, smart meters are being installed all over the country. They provide two-way communication between you and your utility company, helping your utility know about events such as blackouts. It allows the utility to maintain more reliable services and can be used with home energy management systems such as web-based tools that your utility provides. They can even allow you to remotely adjust your thermostat or turn appliances off.6
Other Ways to Produce Energy
Solar energy uses the sun’s light and heat to generate renewable or ‘green’ energy. The most common forms of solar energy are harnessed by solar panels or photovoltaic cells. When rays hit the solar panels, it loosens electrons from their atoms and allows electrons to flow through the cell and generate electricity. In other ways, the sun’s energy is used to boil water and operate a steam turbine to generate electricity in a similar fashion to coal or nuclear power plants.
Hydroelectricity is created in a similar way that electricity from coal is created. In both cases, they require a power source to turn a turbine, which then turns a metal shaft in a generator that produces electricity. The biggest difference is where coal-fired plants would use steam to turn their turbine blades, hydroelectric plants use high-pressure ducted water located at the base of dams to power turbines.5
Which Sources of Power Contribute to Pollution?
Although the cheapest form of generating power is through the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, natural gas, and oil, it is also the most hazardous to the environment. The burning of these fuels releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere which has been linked to serious environmental complications including global warming, climate change, air pollution, natural disasters, habitat destruction, and chronic health problems.
Which Sources of Power Are Green?
Energy generated through renewable sources such as hydro, wind, solar and geothermal is green. Unlike fossil fuels, these sources of power do not deplete natural resources. They are also cleaner sources of energy that do not pollute the environment with carbon emissions.
Although renewable energy sources are better for the health of our planet, they typically cost more than other sources of energy, which is why the majority of our electricity is not generated from green sources.
Just Energy's JustGreen Power product makes it possible for you to ensure that the equivalent of up to 100% of your electricity consumption is generated from renewable sources.
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- “Electricity - A Secondary Energy Source.” Lehigh University, www.ei.lehigh.edu/learners/energy/readings/electricity.pdf.
- “The Science of Electricity.” Factors Affecting Gasoline Prices - Energy Explained, Your Guide To Understanding Energy - Energy Information Administration, www.eia.gov/energyexplained/index.php?page=electricity_science.
- “Coal & Electricity.” World Coal Association, 17 Apr. 2018, www.worldcoal.org/coal/uses-coal/coal-electricity.
- “How Electricity Is Delivered To Consumers.” Factors Affecting Gasoline Prices - Energy Explained, Your Guide To Understanding Energy - Energy Information Administration, www.eia.gov/energyexplained/index.php?page=electricity_delivery.
- Perlman, Howard, and USGS. “Hydroelectric Power: How It Works.” Adhesion and Cohesion Water Properties, USGS Water Science School, water.usgs.gov/edu/hyhowworks.html.
- “Electric Meters.” Department of Energy, www.energy.gov/energysaver/appliances-and-electronics/electric-meters.