Have you ever wondered why they call it electricity?
It’s named after those little pieces of atoms called electrons. That’s the place to start in understanding how power plants make something that reliably lights your home with the flip of a switch.
Getting all those electrons to march together inside a wire has been described as one of civilization’s greatest and most complex engineering feats.
Just about all of your electricity starts with the scientific phenomenon that spinning a magnet inside a coil of wires will generate electricity. Deep inside most power plants are large turbines that are turned in different ways: falling water at a hydroelectric dam, burning coal or natural gas at a fossil fuel station, atomic energy at a nuclear power plant or the rotating blades of a wind turbine. One exception is solar energy, which uses materials that produce electricity when they are activated by sunlight.
Every power plant is unimaginably complicated. Think about what you would do if you were handed a lump of coal and were told to make it run your refrigerator.
Most large electric generating plants need large banks of transformers to boost the voltage for the cross-country trip through wires held up by tall transmission lines and towers. As it nears your neighborhood, the voltage is reduced at one of those fenced-in complexes of wires and transformers called a substation. Lower voltage makes the electricity safer for home energy use.
As the electricity gets closer to your home or business, the voltage is reduced again with smaller transformers, which typically are mounted on a nearby utility pole or in a ground-level green box in your yard.
Beyond those basics, all that flowing electricity must be coordinated so it gets to the right house just as it’s needed. Safety is always a top priority. Line crews must be organized for both routine power line maintenance and restoration after storm damage.
When you think about it, that’s a lot of power in the simple flip of a switch!