Eco Library   Electricity

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Essential to Modern Life

Electricity is one of the most widely used forms of energy. Technically speaking, electricity is a secondary energy source: It is created by the conversion of other energy sources, like coal.

Electricity is the flow of electrons between atoms. Atoms are comprised of protons and neutrons, which form the nucleus, and electrons, which spin around the nucleus. Electrons, which have a negative charge, and protons, which have a positive charge, are attracted to each other, creating a magnetic field. The electrons that are furthest from the nucleus can be pushed out of the orbit of one atom into that of another, by means of force. When these electrons move from one atom to another, electricity is created.

Today, electricity is essential to civilization: It is used in virtually every aspect of our life, from our homes to our modes of transportation, to the factories that produce the food, clothing, and goods we need to survive. This electricity is generated at power plants and then moved via high-voltage power lines to substations — in the United States, this network is called the “grid.” Lower-voltage lines then move the power from substations and transformers to customers.

A Brief History of Electricity and Man

Electricity was identified as early as 1600, when Englishman William Gilbert observed and wrote about the electrification of substances. One hundred fifty years later, Benjamin Franklin tied a key to a kite and proved that lightning is the same as static electricity (Franklin also is credited with the terms “electricity,” “electric force,” and “electric attraction”), and in 1800 Alessandro Volta of Italy invented the electric battery, paving the way for this energy to be harnessed for human use.

Over the next 40 years, great strides would be made by scientists and developers in the study and development of electricity and how it could be used by humankind: The invention of transformers, motors, electric relays, and more, all paved the way to the sophisticated machines that we rely on today.

How Electricity Is Made

The study of currents led to the development of generators, a device that converts mechanical energy into electrical energy using electromagnets. At power plants, generators use electromagnets to create electric power, which is transmitted from the power company to the consumer.

Power stations use a variety of means to power the generators. The most common methods are steam turbines, internal-combustion engines, gas combustion turbines, water turbines, and wind turbines.

The generators are fueled by a variety of sources, both renewable and finite resources. Most of our electricity is produced by coal (39 percent), while natural gas comprises a quarter of electricity production. Renewable resources power a small portion of electricity production. Hydropower (water) is the source of 7 percent of electrical power, while solar, geothermal, wind, and biomass combined make up about 6 percent of electrical production.

From the generators, electricity moves along the grid via power lines, to the homes and businesses that use it.

The Case for Renewable Electricity Resources

Environmental experts have long been concerned about the non-renewable natural resources used to generate electricity (like coal and other fossil fuels). These resources are finite, and they give off pollution and produce greenhouse gas emissions during the energy production process.    

Some energy sources are cleaner and come from sustainable, renewable resources:

  • Geothermal Power: Naturally occurring heat from within the earth, as seen in volcanoes, hot springs, and geysers, can be used as steam for generating electricity, or can be used to heat buildings and water.
  • Wind Power: Wind turns a turbine’s blades, which spin a shaft, which spins a generator and creates electricity. Wind turbines are an increasingly viable and sustainable option for generating electricity, and one of the cheapest. Wind turbines do not create pollution, and can produce far more electricity during their operating life than the energy used to manufacture and install them.
  • Solar Power: Solar panels made of semiconducting material can capture sunlight and convert it into electricity through a process called the photovoltaic effect. The use of this energy is growing rapidly, as technology has become more affordable and more effective.
  • Biomass: Biomass is organic material from plants and animals, which contains stored energy from the sun. Waste-to-Energy practices can recover this energy from things like wood, crops, manure and sewage — renewable resources that would otherwise end up in a landfill and generate methane.

Electricity and You

It’s important not to take electricity for granted, and to conserve it as much as possible since its generation is still so reliant on finite and nonrenewable resources. Here are some ways you can do your part to conserve energy:

  • Seek out products and brands that use renewable energy to power their manufacturing facilities.
  • Choose energy providers for your home that use alternative energy.
  • Cut down on electricity use at home by turning off unnecessary lights, unplugging appliances when not in use, plugging electronics into advanced power strips that cut down on energy waste, and shopping for energy-efficient appliances.
  • Consider creating alternative energy at home by installing solar panels or a wind turbine.