Even though we use it every day — for lighting our homes, charging our mobile devices, taking a hot shower and so much more — electricity can be a confusing concept to fully grasp. In this article, we will review the basics of what electricity is and answer the burning question: “How does electricity work?”
Electricity 101: What is electricity, and how is electricity made?
Electricity is a fundamental form of energy. It is the result of the accumulation or motion of electrons between atoms.
Electricity is made from building blocks called atoms, so let’s review what an atom is and how its parts behave.
What are atoms and how are they involved in producing electricity?
Within each atom, there are three building block particles that make up all matter: protons, neutrons and electrons. Protons and neutrons can be found packed tightly into the center of the atom — the nucleus. Electrons, much smaller in mass, orbit around the nucleus.
Protons carry a positive charge, and electrons carry a negative charge. These opposite charges attract each other. The atom is in balance when there are an equal number of protons and electrons. (Note: neutrons do not carry a charge and can vary in number.)
How is electricity made?
Electrons usually remain at a constant distance from the nucleus in what are known as “shells.” Closest to the nucleus is a shell that can hold up to two electrons. The next closest shell can hold up to eight electrons. Shells further out can hold more.
The electrons in the shell closest to the nucleus are strongly attracted to the protons. The electrons in outer shells don’t have as strong of a draw to the protons, so they can be pushed out of their orbits and into different atoms.
This flow of electrons between atoms is electricity.
Example: Why does rubbing a balloon on your head make your hair stand up straight? It’s because you shifted some electrons off the balloon and into your hair. The electrons, which repel each other, tried to get as far away from each other as possible. They went to the ends of your hair strands, making your hair stand on end. This is static electricity.
Electricity in motion: Terms to know
Now that you know that electricity is the energy produced by charged particles, it’s important to understand some terms and concepts related to how it works.
Current: the flow of electric charges, measured in amperes (or amps, for short).
Voltage: how much electrical energy is available to power devices, measured in volts.
Resistance: how easily current can flow.
Circuit: the paths that electrical currents take.
Conductor: a material with very low resistance that can easily transmit current. Examples: most metals, saltwater
Semiconductor: a material that allows for the precise control of electricity flow. Example: silicon in computer chips
Insulator: a material with high resistance that restricts current. Example: most plastics
How is electricity generated for use in homes and businesses?
Electricity is actually a secondary energy source. It is created from converting primary sources of energy — like natural gas, oil, coal, wind, solar, etc. — into electrical power.
The process of generating electricity on a large scale is complex. Generation occurs at power plants, converting one of the primary sources mentioned above into electricity. That electricity then moves through a system of substations, transformers and power lines that connect the energy producers to consumers.
This interconnected network — generation, transmission and distribution — that moves electricity to homes and businesses is often called the electric grid.
How does electricity work in a house?
Electricity flows through the grid and enters a house either through outdoor power lines or an underground connection. Power can be turned on or shut off in certain areas of the home from the central service panel. This is commonly referred to as the breaker box.
Learn more about how home energy works in Texas here.
How is electricity usage measured?
Watts are the unit used to measure power consumption. The more power utilized by an item, the higher the wattage. For example, a 100-watt light bulb (or equivalent LED bulb) uses more power and shines brighter than a 40-watt light bulb (or equivalent LED bulb).
Homes and businesses are equipped with electric meters outside where electricity enters the structure. It measures the total usage of a home or building. The electric utility company that services the address monitors the meter.
Kilowatt hours explained
When you receive your electricity bill, it will show you how much electricity you have used in the past month. You’ll see your usage reported in kilowatt hours (kWh). A kilowatt equals 1,000 watts; a kilowatt hour is equivalent to one hour of electricity use at a rate of 1,000 watts.
The best way to figure out how much electricity you use at home is to review your previous electricity bills. You will probably notice that your electricity usage varies by season. Looking at a full 12 months of usage history data, you can calculate the average number of kilowatt hours (kWh) you use each month.
If you’re curious about how much energy a specific appliance or electronic device uses, you can use a watt meter to find out!
That’s electricity in a nutshell! Of course, there are many more details and aspects of electricity that can be explored. However, the information above gives you a good starting point for answering questions like “What is electricity?”, “How is electricity made?” and “How does electricity work in a house?”
For everything energy-related, including help choosing an electricity plan for your home, Everything Energy has you covered.