How Does Electricity Actually Work?


Electricity has become an important part of our daily life, and we depend on the power flowing from our outlets to keep our lives going smoothly and conveniently. But very few people actually give electricity a second thought. Most people know it’s dangerous, but what makes it that way? And how does it come to exist in the first place? If you’ve ever wanted to know about electricity, including what it is and how it works, then this blog is for you, as we’ll take a closer look at some of the basics of electricity.

What is Electricity?

Physicists will tell you that everything in the universe is composed of one of two things: matter and energy—to put it simply, electricity is the latter. More specifically, electricity is energy derived from a flow of “free” electrons, which are the tiny negatively-charged particles which flow around a core of protons and neutrons that make up each atom, the fundamental building blocks of our universe. Materials that have more of these “free” electrons, such as metals like gold, silver, copper, and aluminum, all have excellent “conductivity,” or allow electricity to move with little resistance. As these free electrons flow from one point to another, they exert energy in the form of pressure, which we can then use to power devices, kind of like a river powering an old saw mill with a water wheel.

There are two main kinds of electricity: “alternating current” which is the type of electricity that comes from your wall sockets, and “direct current” which is more commonly found in things like batteries. Many of your handheld devices actually run on direct current, which means the alternating current must be converted before it can be used.

Where Does Electricity Come From?

Electricity exists naturally in the universe, but it took us thousands of years to figure out how to harness and utilize this energy. Once we understood this concept, we figured out how to generate and create this energy and use it to power our devices. The process of creating electricity is called “generating,” and we do this in all sorts of ways.

For years, electricity was generated by burning fossil fuels like coal, petroleum, and natural gas. Burning these fuels heats up the water in a pipe, vaporizing it and turning it into steam. The steam is then forced through a turbine fan at high pressure, causing it to spin rapidly. A shaft connected to that fan then spins a large magnet around bundles of copper wire, creating an electrical charge which can be refined and utilized. This same principal works today in a number of other generators, including wind powered turbines that you might see on the side of a highway. Even nuclear power plants run on this basic principal, using a process called nuclear fission to heat the water before sending it through the turbines.

Believe it or not, electricity’s mortal enemy, water, can also be an abundant source of energy for generation. Giant hydroelectric dams use the rapid flow of water to turn the generator wheel and produce electricity. If you see water flowing through a dam like normal, odds are it’s actually putting electricity back into the grid.

The Path to Your Home

Generally, electricity is generated at extremely high voltages with some power plants producing and distributing energy at hundreds of thousands of volts. This electricity is sent from the power plants along thick metal cables suspended high off the ground with massive metal structures that you’ve probably seen frequently.

The electricity from these lines then goes to what are known as substations, which are smaller (but still large) electrical stations which step the voltage down to a much safer level (usually somewhere between 3,000 and 50,000 volts) that can be sent along lines that are lower to the ground (along wooden posts you may be familiar with) or even along underground electrical lines.

These lines lead to small transformer boxes, which can either be seen periodically on top of these wooden posts or on the ground encased in a large locked box. These transformers then bring the voltage down to the 120 volts that you’re accustomed to seeing in your house, which is a much safer and more manageable level.

Are you experiencing an electrical problem in your home? Whether you need a simple socket installed, minor issue repaired, or a major system overhaul, call the friendly and experienced Marietta electricians at Lightning Bug Electric today at (404) 471-3847 to schedule an appointment or request an estimate!

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