When you imagine electricity, what do you visualize? Lighting in the sky? Electric light bulbs? Diagrams from a science textbook of arrows going through wires?
You probably remember that matter is made up of atoms, and each of those atoms has electrons orbiting it. In a metal, those electrons can move more freely than in non-metals. If any of those electrons all start moving in one direction, that movement is called an electric current, or electricity.
But how do we actually make those electrons flow when we want them to? When you flip on a light switch, where does the electricity come from? How is electricity made on a large scale to power our homes and businesses? Find out below.
What is Electricity and How Is It Made?
The way we make electricity is closely related to what it is. Since we know that electricity is the movement of electrons between atoms in a material like metal, we have to get those electrons all moving in one direction in order to create electricity.
We often do this with magnets. How? Inside of an electric generator, there’s a shaft that spins through the use of various energy sources. That shaft has metal wires on it, and those wires are surrounded by magnets.
Here’s what happens: when the shaft spins, the wires get moved quickly through the magnetic field, which pushes the electrons through the wires. That directly creates an electrical current in those wires, and we pull the electricity out through transmission lines.
In an alternative design for how electricity is made, the shaft holds the magnets, which spin inside of a housing of stationary wires. Either way, the result is the same: magnets push electrons through wires to create electrical currents.
Where Does Electricity Come From?
When we use electricity at home or work, electricity is being generated moments before in a power plant somewhere relatively nearby—on the same continent, at least.
Power plants run around the clock to send electricity out over a nationwide grid of wires and transformers. How is electricity made in those power plants?
Many power plants have turbines inside of them (which look something like a fan). In those plants, we heat up water using a fuel, such as coal, until it turns to steam. That steam expands and rises, turning the turbines in the generator. That makes a shaft spin, and that shaft is connected to the actual electric generator, which is where the electricity comes from.
But both fossil fuels and other types of energy are used. Here are six common sources of power that are turned into electricity:
Coal is a solid form of fossil fuel, which is extracted from coal mines in the form of a black or brown-black sedimentary rock. It is combustible, and it’s burned in power plants to heat water into steam, which turns the turbines of electric generators.
Some power plants burn natural gas to produce the heat that creates steam and spins their turbines, instead of using coal.
In a nuclear power plant, electricity is generated in much the same way that it’s generated in coal and natural gas plants: steam flowing through turbines spins the shaft of an electric generator. However, nuclear power doesn’t rely on combustion. Instead, nuclear material is allowed to enter a slow, controlled reaction that heats it up. That heat then turns water into steam, which is used to turn the generator.
Solar panels are made up of many solar power cells, which directly turn sunlight into an electrical current. That electricity then travels through wires to a converter that transforms it into the type you can use in your home. You can have solar panels on your own roof to add to the electricity you get from your power company, or your power company might send you solar-produced electricity created at large solar farms somewhere else in the country.
Wind-powered generators are deployed in areas of the country that have steady, reliable wind. The wind turns blades (which look a little like giant fan blades), which turn a shaft that runs a sophisticated electric generator. The electricity is often sent into the national power grid and added to the electricity that customers receive.
In hydroelectric power plants, the force of moving liquid water spins the turbines of an electric generator. This often happens within a dam, which holds back the water in a reservoir and allows engineers to release the water in a controlled manner through the area housing the turbines.
Currently, about 63% of commercial electricity in the US is produced using fossil fuels. But we need to gradually move to energy sources that are sustainable and renewable for the future.
If you want to do your part in helping your country use more of the sustainable energy sources that are available, contact Spring Power and Gas. We are working to create a sustainable energy future with the help of our customers.