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Where Does Power Come From?

on February 12, 2016

how does power generation workWhere does power come from?  Unless you have solar panels on your roof or a generator in your yard, all power in your home comes from a large-scale power planet from outside of your home city.  Whether your electricity is generated by wind, water, sunlight, or heat, it’s all generated by motion.  But how is electricity generated? And how does it get to your home from such a long distance away?

How a Generator Works

First, a quick lesson in basic electricity.  Electricity can be generated by crossing a coiled wire through a magnetic field.  By rotating a loop of wire between magnetic poles, electrical power can be introduced to the wire, generating power that’s usable on any connected circuit.

The rotation of the wire is what causes it to cross the magnetic field (as simple placing the conductor in the field will not generate a steady flow of electrical energy).  To be functional, the conductor needs to rotate constantly, so that continuous crossing of the magnetic field induces voltage on the wire.

Continuous rotation means you need a continuous force to turn the wire.  Fortunately, finding ways to power a wheel has been a staple of humanity for all of recorded history.

Types of Power

Gas Turbine – Much like your car, a gas turbine uses an internal combustion engine to spin a turbine.  It’s very simple, starts quickly, and runs at an even rate until it runs out of fuel.  These turbines are mostly used for emergency power generation and black-start capabilities for starting more powerful and energy-efficient plants after an outage.

Hydroelectric – The standard hydro power plant requires three things to function: gravity, water, and enough heat to keep the water as a fluid.  For us, we have this in abundance.  By damming a river, we can capture the flow of water as it moves downhill.  That downward flow spins a turbine in much the same way a water-wheel works.  As the turbine spins, it spins a coil inside a magnetic field, generating electric energy.

Wind – The heartthrob of current green-energy turbines!  Wind is plentiful across the world, and exists somewhere within the US at any given time.  With so many windfarms throughout the US, if you haven’t seen them nearby you’ve seen them while travelling.  These powerful turbines use large blades to catch wind currents.  The wind pushes on the blades of the generator, spinning them which in turn spins the generator to create electricity.

Solar – Solar is the exception here.  Rather than spinning a turbine, a photocell is used.  Photovoltaic cells capture photons of light and convert them into electrical energy.  Much of the energy from sunlight is lost in the form of heat, but they are still the cleanest form of energy on the planet.  The problem with solar is in how much surface area is needed to make the power plant viable.  If you have the room, solar panels are a great way to generate electricity, and modern batteries are making them even more worthwhile.

Steam Power – Yes, steam is still the main way we generate power for our cities.  You may not be aware of this, but he backbone of the American electrical grid is based on how efficiently we can boil water. Coal, propane, and even nuclear power plants all use heat to generate steam inside the system.  By heating water into steam, the pressure increases and forces its way through a turbine engine.  The pressurized steam rotates the turbine, turning the generator and giving us power.  So whether it’s through burning coal or by splitting an atom, steam power is what our country runs on.

Transmission

Transmission lines move electricity great distances.  Since many power plants are noisy or have to be located in special areas, transmission lines have to be designed for carrying power long distances with little loss of energy.  As mentioned in the prior article on current,  wires are resistive, which means some power is lost during transmission.  Imagine how much power is lost over even a few miles of transmission line.

To get around this limitation, the level of voltage is increased using a transformer.  If you recall, the formula for Ohm’s Law is Voltage = Current x Resistance.  By forcing an increase in voltage, current lowers on the transmission line.  Power is calculated as Power = Voltage x Current.  With current lowered as much as possible, the resistance becomes negligible and less power is spent.  Once the line reaches your home, another set of transformers lowers the voltage to the 120 volts your home is designed for, raising current back up to a usable level for your home.


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