Electricity is the cornerstone of modern life. It gives light to our homes, runs our technology and appliances and is even beginning to power our vehicles and transportation services. Most people take electricity for granted, at least until there is a blackout. Have you ever wondered just where your electricity is coming from or how it is generated? Here is an in-depth look at the energy that powers our world.
The deceptively simple generator
Most forms of electricity are created using a generator. This includes power from basically all types of power plants with a few exceptions. A generator is actually a fairly simple device to understand, and you could probably even build your own generator as a school science or engineering project with a few basic materials.
A generator is actually nothing more than a wire spinning within a magnetic field. The system can also be reversed, with the magnet spinning around the wires. This creates electrical voltage or current, which is fed into the electrical grid to produce AC power. All conventional power plants use the same kind of generator, the only difference between them is the source of power they use to get the wires in the generator to spin. Most of the time, the wires or magnets are attached to a shaft which is attached to a turbine. The turbine harvests energy from rising steam and spins around. In certain cases, the turbine is spun directly, like in a windmill or a hydroelectric dam. Companies like Engineering Inc, design and manufacture generators which supply power to much of the world we know.
Various power plants burn some kind of fuel to generate heat, which generates steam for the turbine. Most of the power plants in the world work this way whether they burn coal, oil, natural gas or use geothermal heat or nuclear fuel.
Solar power and hydrogen
The two current sources of electricity that don’t use turbines and steam with spinning wires and magnets are solar cells and hydrogen fuel cells. Solar cells produce electric current directly when they are exposed to sunlight. The amount of electric current is relatively small compared to a conventional generator, which is why many large panels are needed to produce significant amounts of electricity. The solar cells have the advantage of being easier to set up and maintain and produce no direct pollution.
Fuel cells work on a different principle entirely. A fuel cell does not “burn” hydrogen gas. This is a common misconception. Rather, the fuel cell takes in hydrogen and strips it of electrons. These electrons provide the electricity to do work. The hydrogen is then combined with oxygen to create water and absorb electrons. This creates a continuous flow of electrons in and out of the cell to form a charged circuit.
On the Grid
When energy is produced from any source, it must somehow get from the generating source to your home and into whatever device you need power. In most cases, this is the responsibility of the energy grid. The energy grid can be considered the extensive system of wires, cables, control boxes and transformers that direct the flow of energy from a generator to all the users.
The grid is very important at all stages of power generation. A break or disruption in the grid will likely cause a wide scale problem. When a power line goes down, for example, a large area of homes or buildings might be affected.
The size and complexity of the grid are also very important from a generator perspective. The generators on a grid must produce enough energy to keep the entire grid energised all the time. This means power companies must ensure they are always producing the maximum amount of power, even if it isn’t all being used, in order to make electricity reliable. In first world countries with well-developed and reliable grids, this is usually unnoticeable, but in less developed areas, grids are notoriously unreliable because power generation is uneven or inconsistent. People are plagued by constant power loss or short-term dips in power, often called brownouts. These problems can wreak havoc with electronics and sensitive equipment like computers, and they may be dangerous when vital systems like water pumps or heaters cannot be used for long periods.
Modern electrical companies are often looking for ways to ease the strain on the power grid to reduce costs. They may regulate power usage or entice consumers to use power at certain times, such as at night, by offering cheaper rates. Taking advantage of this not only cuts bills but also helps ease the strain on the electric infrastructure. They may also make use of customers as producers by incentivizing the installation of solar power or other home generation systems that feed unused energy into the grid to help with supply.
Next time you turn on a light, boot up your computer or throw lunch in the microwave, you can thank the complex technology and systems that make modern life possible. Energy production and cost is sure to be one the biggest concerns of modern society as our demand for electricity continues to grow at an ever-faster pace. Understanding how this technology works and taking advantage of whatever savings measures are offered may help maintain a safe and reliable energy infrastructure into the future.
Author: Kara Masterson