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Electricity is a broad term used to describe the behavior of electrons and protons. The flow of electrons creates the current we tap into to power everything from radios to refrigerators.

Food, water and oxygen are essential to your survival. Is electricity? It’s a part of life most of us just take for granted. We flip a switch or push a button and there it is. So what would life be like without it? To understand just how important electricity is, explore more about the power supply chain and the different resources we rely on to fuel the chain.

Electricity is a very flexible form of energy because there are a lot of different resources that can be used to produce it. The different resources range from fossil fuels to nuclear power, from solar to wind to hydrogen and many others. The variety of resources all have benefits and limitations associated with their use. The trick is to balance the good with the bad in order to produce the energy we need. To assess an individual resource, ask yourself these questions:

Is the resource abundant? Is there enough to last for a long time.
Is the resource available? There may be a ton of the resource that exists but it’s too difficult to retrieve.
Is the resource cost-effective?
Some resources may be too expensive to retrieve, or too costly to turn into electricity.
What are the environmental outcomes? What will using this resource do to the environment, are there emissions, will mining it ruin a region?

We rely on many different resources to produce electricity but one basic process is relied on to produce power. At the core of the process are generators. Generators are large magnets surrounded by coils of wire. When the magnet spins, a magnetic field passes along the wires, "pulling" electrons into a stream or current. That process of producing electrical current is repeated from hydroelectric plants, to wind farms, to coal burning plants. All the plants use the same basic process, but they use different energy resources to get the generator spinning – like coal, wind, or water.

There are exceptions to generator-driven power production. Solar power relies on devices called photovoltaic cells to convert light directly into electricity. Fuel cells are relatively new devices that use hydrogen as a fuel to produce electricity.

Infrastructure: Transmission & Distribution
Once an electrical current is created, it has to get to the user. Electrical current is distributed to individual homes and big businesses the same way, over a transmission grid. The grid is a system of transmission wires, substations, and transformers that make electricity accessible and usable. Transmission wires carry high-voltage current over long-distances, from the plants where it’s produced, to the points where it’s used. Once the power reaches it’s destination it’s "stepped down" through substations and transformers to lower, useable levels. The power is then distributed over lower-voltage lines into homes and businesses.

The current electrical distribution system relies heavily on the transmission grid. The problem is that the grid was not designed to carry the load it’s forced to carry. Increasing demand has outpaced updating the infrastructure, leaving a system vulnerable to outages and disruptions of service. In the future, the way electricity is distributed is very likely to change. Some industry experts predict a move toward "distributed generation." Instead of having large centralized power plants with large networks of transmission lines leading away from the generation source to the point of use, we could see smaller networks. These smaller networks would offer the ability to generate power to businesses and even homes.

Fuel cells, for instance, could be placed in the basement just like a furnace to generate electricity. For many computer-related businesses, on-site and backup generation is essential, because any interruption in power costs them big bucks. In the future, we may see small power plants, called microgeneration power stations. These microgeneration power plants would be small enough to fit into a neighborhood.

What do you think?
What do you use every day that demands electricity? Does everyone have equal access to electricity? How does population growth around the world affect energy demand? Is increasing the supply of electricity the only way to meet demand? What are strategies to reduce demand?


  1. The US Energy Information Administration
  2. Solarbuzz. Solar Energy Industry Statistics. "Solar Electricity Prices." (Online) http://www.solarbuzz.com/StatsMarketShare.htm




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Benefit found in small scale wind projects
wind researchers have often called the upper Midwest the Saudi Arabia of wind power. If the wind potential for the entire region were completely utilized, it is estimated the energy produced would supply more power than the entire united states could use.

PBS NewsHour Online Links

They're going to build the power plant where?

Nobody wants a power plant in their backyard.