All about electricity: From the journey of where electricity is born to how it reaches you

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Kilowatts. Our life is powered by kilowatts! Can you imagine what our day-to-day life would be like without electricity? Electricity has become a daily reality for us, so we don’t always realize how much we would miss it if no one had bothered to study it.

The credit goes to a man named Benjamin Franklin of the 18th century, who believed that static electricity and lightning were one and the same.  Positive and negative charges come together producing two types of energy:  static electricity which is generated by friction and dynamic electricity, which is conceived by the current.

In simpler words, electricity can be defined as the energy generated by the movement of positive and negative electrons inside conductive materials.

Along with Franklin there are some names to which we owe many of the comforts that we enjoy today and to which we would like to pay a small tribute: Alessandro Volta, invented the battery. Basically, he is one of the main reasons why our mobile phone or laptop can work without having to be connected to a socket.

Michael Faraday: He was the first to realize that an electric current could be created by the action of a moving magnet on a copper tube. Nowadays, almost all the electricity we use is basically generated by magnets and copper coils in large power plants, which use different sources of energy to convert motion into electricity.

Thomas Edison: Thomas Alva Edison was responsible for turning a filament connected to an electrical current into a reliable, durable and marketable light source. He also created the first direct current electric power generating plant, capable of producing electricity.

Nicholas Tesla: Nikola Tesla is responsible for the alternating current system that is commonly used today. He made the discovery of the rotating magnetic field, a phenomenon that helped him build the Niagara Falls hydroelectric plant, capable of producing and transporting electricity over long distances. Thanks to his invention it is possible for the electricity generated in plants can reach remote places.

Where does the electricity come from?

Electricity is produced in plants capable of obtaining electrical energy from primary energies that can be either renewable or non-renewable. Once the energy has been treated and converted into electricity, it is sent from the power plants to the substations by means of support towers or underground. There the transformers are responsible for ensuring adequate electrical voltage. From the substations, current is distributed in the closest area.

Types of power plant

As previously mentioned, there are different ways to generate electricity. It depends on the primary energies and the type of power plants:

Conventional cycle thermoelectric plants: Coal, natural gas or diesel are burned to raise the temperature of a water tank. This water is subsequently transformed into steam that spins a turbine creating mechanical energy. An alternator then transforms the mechanical energy into electrical energy generating electricity. Finally, the steam goes to a condenser to turn back to water and start the cycle again.   

Combined cycle thermoelectric plants: Operate in a similar way to conventional cycle plants. Likewise, they have a turbine that spins with the steam from the heated water. However, they also have an additional turbine that moves with the air extracted from the atmosphere and heated by fossil fuels. Combined cycle thermoelectric plants are more efficient, more flexible and more ecological (lower emissions to the atmosphere) than conventional cycle ones.

Hydroelectric plants:  Use the energy of waterfalls to move hydraulic turbines convert the kinetic energy of falling water into mechanical energy. the mechanical energy from the turbine is then changed to electrical energy with the help of a generator.

Nuclear power plants:  Heat is released by nuclear fission in a reactor. This heat boils up a large amount of water under high pressure. Its steam produces electricity by passing through a turbine connected to a generator.

Geothermal plants: Water is heated to emit steam to drive a turbine) but in this case it takes advantage the natural heat of the interior of the earth through pipelines underground. geothermal heat pumps are used to inject liquid water into the innermost of the earth to raise its temperature. The water then returns to the power station in the gas state in form of steam, full of energy and ready to be transformed into electricity.

Solar power plants:  Solar power plants are of two types. The thermosolar; it uses the heat of the sun to heat water and use the generated steam to drive a turbine. The second one is the photovoltaic, it directly transforms solar energy into electricity, thanks to photovoltaic cells.  These cells have one or several layers of a semiconductor material and are covered with a transparent glass that allows radiation to pass through and minimizes heat losses. Photovoltaic cells convert sunlight into electricity in the form of direct current and with a graduation that varies between 380 and 800 volts. An inverter is used that transforms this energy into alternating current.

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Tidal power plants:  The movements of water produced by the fluctuation of the tides drive a turbine that produces electricity through a generator.  There are two types of tidal energy:

  • Tidal dams:  built at the mouths of rivers. They are similar in look to hydroelectric dams. They take advantage of the potential energy that arises with the difference in height between high and low tides. Tidal dams generate large amounts of energy; however, they are very expensive to build and maintain.
  • Tidal current generator:  the currents spins axial turbines that are similar to windmills. It is the simplest, cheapest method that is very environmentally friendly.

Wave power stations: Operate similarly to Tidal power plants but using the waves instead of the tides.

We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles.    

Thomas A. Edison