Electricity 101: What is Electricity?

Published on 01/20/2021

A Primer: Understanding Electricity
At its simplest, electricity is the movement of electrical energy through conductive material. Other terms that are important when discussing electricity include current, voltage, resistance, and circuits, as defined below:

Current: The magnitude of the flow of electrons in a circuit, measured in amperes, or amps, for short.

Voltage: The measure of a circuit’s electrical energy measured in volts.

Resistance: The measure of the ability of a specific material to oppose the flow of electricity, measured in ohms.

To use the flow of water as an analogy, the current refers to the amount of water (electricity) flowing past a specific point, while the voltage is the pressure of the water (electricity) through a pipe and resistance as a sponge in a water pipe that limits the flow (current of electricity).

In short, electrical energy is energy that is kinetic -- or moving -- energy that is caused by electrical charges called electrons. The faster the charges move, the greater the electrical energy (current) that is generated.

If we want to measure the electrical energy (current), we use volts to describe the amount of power being transferred.

Electrical energy is quite easy to move from one place to another, but harder to store in large quantities. 

Instead, it is carried in energetic fields like electric or magnetic fields through wires, conducting materials such as metals that can carry electricity for miles. The system transporting this energy is known as the electrical grid.

It’s important to remember that electricity is not an energy source in itself, but is generated by other natural sources such as gas, wind, water, coal, and others.

Types of Electricity

Electricity has two basic types: Static and current. Static electricity is produced by the friction of two objects rubbing against one another, while current electricity is generated through the flow of electrons through a specific conductor across an electrical field.

In the United States, most electricity is produced using fossil fuels such as natural gas, petroleum, and coal; nuclear energy; or renewable sources. Natural gas sources produce 38% of the nation’s power while coal is responsible for 23% of electricity generated and nuclear power provides 20%, with other sources filling in the gaps.

For example, there are several renewable ways to generate current electricity. Hydroelectricity refers to electrical power generated through the harnessing of moving water. In a hydroelectric system, power is generated by turbines that speed at high speeds as water pushes through them.

In much the same way, wind turbines can harness the power of air movement to generate electric power.

Finally, solar electricity uses the photovoltaic (PV) cells that convert sunlight into electricity. Each cell comprises two or more typically silicon films that act as semiconductors. Sunlight that hits the cells pushes electrons loose from atoms, causing them to flow to the cell to generate electrical power.

Getting Electricity to Homes and Businesses

To get much-needed power to our homes and businesses, electricity must be transmitted from the power source to the end users.

Most utilities are large investor-owned utilities and for-profit businesses. They typically have oversight from state PUCs & federal agencies. Some power sources operate as public utilities or not-for-profit and are typically managed by a state or federal government or a municipality. And a few utilities that generate electricity for public consumption include rural electric cooperatives, federal power agencies and some independent power producers.
The Journey of Electricity

Everyone is familiar with the power lines that run through our landscape, bringing energy to various communities. These power lines carry the electricity that powers our homes, businesses, and all the devices we rely upon.

The journey begins at a power plant that generates electricity through one of the various methods outlined — from fossil fuels to nuclear power or sustainable resources. This power is transmitted to a transmission substation where the step-up transformer raises the voltage. Once at a higher voltage, the electricity is then transmitted cross-country on transmission lines.

Power is broken down to the lines that carry power to businesses and residential users usually at a distribution substation. From there, power travels to its final destination though the distribution lines. These represent the greatest amount of line miles in any utility system, and because of that, it also happens to be where the bulk of utility vegetation management occurs.

Power Lines: Power for Your Home and Business

Power generation is a significant and complex process that requires ongoing investment in operations, maintenance, and of course, fuel for power. 

The transmission lines that make up the basis of our power grid are essential in moving power from generators and bringing it to local homes and businesses. But, in order for these lines to work properly, they must be constantly maintained.
Maintenance activities include preventing sagging during peak demand times, protecting lines from wind damage through the application of stockbridge dampers, and keeping the “wire zone” tree-free. The wire zone can be as wide as 70-100 feet on each side of a transmission line.

Keeping these areas clear is essential as a transmission line outage can cause an entire city to lose power.

Other considerations include altering transmission tower heights to prevent the induction of electric currents in fences and other nearby structures and even reducing the audible noise created by lines to avoid disturbing home and business owners.

Producing electricity to power our homes and our economy takes intricate coordination across a number of industries. 

From the utilities that own the power generating plants down to the maintenance crews that keep transmission lines in operation so that power can flow safely, our power grid comprises the complex collaboration of multiple disciplines and professionals.

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