How Does Electricity Work? | Get the Facts!

How Does Electricity Work?

by | Educational, Electricity, Energy

Electricity is the heart of the modern world, powering so much of our daily life, from the phone we constantly carry to the computer we need for our job. But understanding how it works isn’t like flicking on the kitchen light. It’s a bit more complicated than that.  

Alternating current, direct current, electrical circuits, electric fields — how does electricity work?. When it’s broken down to its simplest form, it is really quite a remarkable force of nature.  

How Does Electricity Work? 

A common definition of electricity is a “phenomenon associated with stationary or moving electric charges.” It’s a fundamental property of matter borne by elementary particles.   

It can occur naturally in the form of a lightning strike or static electricity shocks from walking across a carpet and touching metal. But the most common way we interact with electricity on a daily basis is the kind that is generated for our modern needs.   

Electricity generation is most commonly produced by hydroelectric power (hydroelectricity), photovoltaic solar power, wind power, fossil fuel sources (natural gas turbines, coal steam turbines), nuclear power plants, and geothermal energy, though there are also new technologies emerging such as hydrogen and tidal power.   

However, these forms of energy do not technically “make” electricity — they generate it by using processes that unlock the power of electricity from within these resources.  

What Is Electricity Made Of? 

What Electricit is Made of | -electric-power-factory-imagesource

The short answer is electrons.  

The slightly more complex answer is: a flow of electric charge as a form of energy.   

Energy is a conversion of matter. And like all matter, energy is dictated by atoms. In this case, it is dictated by a tiny part of the atom: the subatomic particles that orbit the proton/neutron nucleus known as electrons.   

When a number of electrons move, they create magnetic fields, which causes electric charges to form. These charges are then carried by a negative charge flow of electrons found in conductive materials, such as copper wire, which is one of the most common ways to conduct electricity. With a targeted direction, these free electrons will flow in a generally uniform way, creating a positive charge known as an electrical current.  

This electric current flow, properly harnessed and directed along a conductive material, is electricity.  

How Is Electricity Measured? What Units Are Used To Measure It? 

There are three primary units used to measure electricity: Volts, amps, and watts. There are also units called ohms, which measure electrical resistance, but they are less commonly used.   

Voltage is what powers devices — if it’s too high, it will blow the device. If there’s not enough, it won’t work, like a dimming or flickering light. A 110V or 220V flow of electricity is most common.  

Amperage is a measure of current, which is similar to voltage at face value but very different at its core. The major difference is that voltage is constantly available, and amperage is intermittent — think of voltage as water pressure in a pipe, which stays relatively constant, and amperage as the flow rate, which changes as the tap is turned on or off.  

 A watt is the main unit of electrical power because it’s essentially the measurement of voltage and amperage together. To be more precise, a watt is equal to one ampere under the pressure of one volt.   

One watt is a small amount of power. There are 1,000 W in one kilowatt (kW); 1,000 kW in one megawatt (MW), which is 1,000,000 W; and 1,000 MW are in one gigawatt (GW), which is 1,000,000,000 W.   

Personal electricity consumption is typically measured in kW per hour, or kWh, while electrical generation plants are measured in MW or GW, depending on their size. Total generation across large, developed countries can be measured in terawatts (TW), which is 1,000,000,000,000 W.  

Why Is Electricity Important? 

Electricity is important for several reasons, but none as important as the fact that the entirety of modern civilization is built on electrical power. Before Thomas Edison, Benjamin Franklin, and Nikola Tesla helped bring electricity to market, it was difficult to even illuminate a room at night. Now, electricity is at the heart of everything we use, from the computer or device you’re reading this on to an ever-increasing number of vehicles.   

The electricity industry is huge and will only continue to grow. Generating stations, which create and supply this sought-after resource, generally perform three main activities. They generate electricity through various technologies using one or more sources. They then provide transmission of the electricity they generate, usually over long distances, to end-use markets. Finally, they distribute the electricity to end-users through local power distribution lines.   

All of this is necessary to keep your television on and your smartphone charged.  

Where Does My Electricity Come From?  

Where Electricity Comes From | -power-illustrationsource

Chances are your electricity comes from the main grid, which utilizes electrical components such as turbine generators, transformers, power stations and substations, and transmission lines and power lines to give electric power to end-users. How the main grid gets its electricity depends on where you live. If you live in France, it’s likely that your electricity comes from nuclear power. If you live in Canada, it’s likely that your electricity comes from hydropower.   

However, if you live in the United States, there’s a good chance your electricity comes from coal, natural gas, nuclear, wind, or hydropower, depending on your county of residence 

Why Is Electricity Not an Energy Source? 

Unless you’re tapping lightning bolts, electricity isn’t a source of energy – it’s a way of transporting energy from where it’s generated to where it’s used.   

Technically speaking, electricity is a secondary energy source.  

The electricity we typically consume is a secondary energy source because it’s produced by converting primary sources of energy such as fossil fuels, nuclear energy, and wind energy into electrical power.   

Since energy can only be transferred — it cannot be created or destroyed — the potential electrical energy stored within these resources is converted to electricity, which is then used to power homes, electric cars, and all kinds of electrical devices.   

How Much Electricity Is Used By Common Devices? 

The amount of electricity used can vary between similar devices, especially depending on the amount of time each device is used over the course of a month (which is the standard time period for measuring electricity usage). However, most devices fall within an average range that can be calculated for reference purposes. Below are some examples of average current electricity usage by common devices. 

Television 

27” flat screen: Up to 53 kWh per month 

53” – 61” projection screen: Up to 75 kWh per month 

Computer 

Desktop Computer (including monitor and printer): Up to 32 kWh per month 

Light Bulb 

Single lamp (60W): Up to 12kWh per month 

Compact fluorescent (60W-equivalent): About 4kWh per month 

Ceiling fixture (3 bulbs): Up to 35kWh per month 

Table lamp (Tri-Light): Up to 20kWh per month 

Chandelier (5 lamp): Up to 55kWh per month 

Fluorescent (2 tube; 4 ft): Up to 20kWh per month 

Conventional Oven 

Standard range oven: Up to 625kwH per month 

Air Conditioner 

Room AC unit (6,000 BTU): Up to 548kWh per month 

Central AC unit (2.5 Tons): Up to 47kWh per month 

Clothes Dryer 

Standard electric dryer: Up to 140kWh per month 

Do Dimmers Use Less Electricity Than Regular Switches? 

For decades, light dimmers decreased brightness by allowing less electricity into the bulb and converting the remaining energy into heat. It worked, but it was inefficient — it failed to save energy! Only recently have modern dimmers utilized technological advances to reduce energy usage.   

Now, simply dimming the lights to half-full can cut electricity usage up to 40% over time and allow bulbs to last almost 20 times longer than average. However, this only applies to LED lights, where the dimming effect is fairly linear.  

On the other hand, dimming incandescent bulbs is less efficient than using a less-powerful bulb. A 70W bulb dimmed to the level of a 50W bulb will use significantly more energy than a 50W bulb turned to full brightness. When it comes to dimmers, the type of light really matters.  

How Much Electricity Do I Use? 

Electricity usage depends on your personal energy consumption habits, but the world average per capita was 3,131 kWh per year, according to 2014 data (which is the last time a worldwide estimate was taken). While this number is the world average per capita, the number varies drastically depending on where you live on the planet, as well as your lifestyle and habits.   

The per capita average in Ethiopia was only 70 kWh per year in 2014, while in Iceland it was 53,832 kWh. The world’s most populous country, China, was measured at 3,927 kWh per year per capita, while the second-most populous country, India, was only 804 kWh per year.   

If you live in the United States, you probably use somewhere around 12,993 kWh per year, which is the national average. If you live in Canada, you would probably consume a bit more, around 15, 558 kWh per year.  

What Is the Average Household Electricity Usage? 

Average household electricity usage varies by location across the world. In the United States, typical household power consumption was around 11,700 kWh per year about a decade ago — now it’s more than double.   

On the other side of the Atlantic, French households use an average of 6,400 kWh per year while their neighbors in the UK consume about 4,600 kWh annually.  

Electricity demand has been growing significantly in recent years. Global household electricity consumption was around 3,500 kWh on average in 2010 — by 2014, the individual average consumption per year was nearly this high.   

There are several reasons for increasing usage and disparity between regions. Things like wealth, house size, electrical availability, appliance standards, utility prices, and access to electrical alternatives all contribute to these shifting numbers.  

What Will the Future of Electricity Look Like? 

We’re not able to predict the future with certainty — but it’s clear that electricity will most likely be even more important in the future as the world moves towards more portable and carbon dioxide-free energy.  

Electricity from renewable energy sources like wind turbines, solar panels, biomass, geothermal, and hydroelectricity, as well as nuclear power, are all free of carbon emissions. Their use is predicted to increase by at least three times the current capacity to meet the demand of electric cars, smart homes, and an ever-expanding plethora of electrical gadgets.  

 Household usage is sure to go up, and countries with lower usage rates will likely see their per capita numbers rise dramatically in the upcoming years. The future is literally bright due to the awesome power of electricity. 

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