The basics of electricity today

The basics of electricity today

Electricity is a crucial commodity many people take for granted — provided the lights, computer, medical equipment, household appliances and factory equipment work when the switch is flipped.

However, a basic understanding of electricity is needed to understand why the demand to go solar is growing for homeowners, businesses and governments.

How does electricity work and reach the plug in front of you?

While it is easy to think of electricity as energy that flows through wires to power your home, it is really “the flow of electrons along a conductor.” Whether generated by a wind turbine or from burning coal, the energy in the electrons that are generated are harnessed and converted into electric currents that can flow from one place to another. The wires are the conductor.

The electric currents then go through a step-up transformer that increases the voltage so it can travel from the power plant across long distances over high-voltage transmission lines. The high-voltage electricity goes through a substation, where the electricity is passed through a step-down transformer to lower the voltage levels for distribution to homes, schools and businesses. The currents then travel through wires in the walls until they reach your electrical outlets and any power cord plugged in.

How are things powered by the sun?

The sun releases tremendous amounts of energy in the forms of light and heat. The photovoltaic (PV) cells on solar panels capture the sunlight particles, or photons. Using silicon or other semiconducting materials, the panels’ cells convert the photons into electric currents much like a coal burning plant converts electrons into currents. These currents, which are direct currents (DC), are inverted into the alternating current (AC) electricity, which is the kind used by plug-in devices.

If the solar panels are part of a stand-alone power system (“off-grid”) they will usually have a battery that stores some of the energy generated for use when the sun does not shine. This is how highway signs and bus benches with solar panels (or even walk-way lights for lawns) work, generating electricity during the day when they do not need it and consuming the electricity at night to be lit up.

Why are electricity prices rising?

Energy prices are rising because 1) the demand for electricity is growing, 2) the costs to generate electricity are rising, and 3) the grid infrastructure needs considerable capital investments to ensure continued reliability.

Demand is escalating. According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration, electricity consumption is expected to increase 45 percent by 2030.

Just look around a typical home. Appliances today use a fraction of the energy they used to consume, even though many are large or have more features. For example, refrigerators in 1972 used an average of 197.0 Watts per hour; in 2004, they were typically bigger in size but only used 57.1 Watts per hour, according to the Edison Electric Institute. At the same time, however, most people have more things to plug in than ever before. Anyone living in an older home knows there used to be very few outlets in a single room. Now, energy use have been affected by the multiple computers, TVs and mobile devices being charged by every member of the household.

Power generation plants require fuel to operate. With the exception of hydro, nuclear and renewable “fuels” like wind and solar, finding, excavating and transporting the fuel — whether oil, coal or natural gas — gets more expensive every year. For example, the average price electric utilities paid for natural gas rose more than 300 percent from 1999 to 2005.

Besides adding and fueling additional power plants, utilities need to put considerable funds, which are passed onto ratepayers, into shoring up and expanding high-voltage transmission lines, substations and neighborhood power poles. Much of the grid infrastructure in parts of the country, just like the highways, have been around for 40 to 50 years. The utility industry is spending hundreds of billions to replace and upgrade infrastructure, rushing to meet consumer demand for higher quality power enabled by construction of a more modern grid. Investor-owned utilities reportedly spent more than $100 billion in 2014 on improving the infrastructure; that $100 billion will ultimately come from ratepayers.

What does renewable energy entail?

Renewable energy involves generating power in a way that does not contribute to global warming, is efficient and uses resources that replenish regularly (as opposed to oil which is in limited supply and releases dangerous particles into the air when used). Common examples of renewable ways of making electricity include hydropower, wind turbines and solar power systems. All three have been in use in various methods for hundreds of years.

Of the three common renewable energy types, solar is the most efficient and does not require the scope of infrastructure required by other forms of electric generation. Most power plants were built far from populated areas or business centers, which requires transmitting the power they generate over great distances. This forces them to waste a significant portion of the energy they produce transporting it along hundreds of miles of transmission and distribution lines. Some estimates say that delivering electricity from distant plants can waste more than half of the power originally produced.

On the contrary, a solar energy system on a home, business or road sign generates electricity that is efficiently distributed for use on the spot. This localization of power generation could significantly cut the need for more high-voltage transmission lines. Additionally, if the system is “grid-tied,” it could potentially sell excess power generated to the local utility for use nearby, also eliminating the need for vast electricity transportation corridors.

RGS Energy, founded in 1978, is a market leader in solar energy system installation. To learn how solar could lower your electric bills and to get a free quote, visit

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