Answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about electricity.
From Time magazine – June 12, 1975
Electricity is the most versatile form of energy. But its also the most mysterious. We can’t see it. We can’t smell it. We can’t hear it.
Here are answers to some of the questions people often ask about electricity.
1. Where does electricity come from?
Electricity is electrons in motion. It occurs in nature in the form of lightning, electric eels, and even the small shock you sometimes get when you touch a doorknob.
Most of the electricity we use in our everyday lives is made in a power plant by spinning a magnet inside coils of wire. This puts electrons in motion and creates a flow of electricity. It’s made the same way, whether it’s produced in a small coal-burning power plant or the most modern nuclear plant.
2. What’s an electron?
It is a very, very small particle of an atom carrying a tiny electrical charge. (To give you an idea of its size, it takes six billion billion electrons to light a 100-watt light bulb for a single second.)
3. Why doesn’t a bird get electrocuted when it lands on an electric wire?
Because it only lands on one wire. Electricity takes the path of least resistance. It’s simply easier for the electricity to continue along the metal wire than it is for it to enter the bird.
But if the bird landed on two wires with different voltages, the electricity would flow through the bird from the wire with the higher voltage to the wire with the lower voltage, and the bird would be electrocuted.
4. Does the human brain produce electricity?
Not only the brain, but the entire body produces electricity through chemical reactions in the cells.
The body is a highly complex electrical system with the brain functioning as the control and switching center: Most everything we see, hear smell, taste, and feel is the result of tiny electrical signals to the brain from various parts of the body.
5. Is static electricity ever dangerous?
One form of static electricity can become very dangerous. Lightning. During a storm, the sky churns and builds up a concentration of electrons in certain places.
When the electrons build up massive voltage, they will suddenly leap from one cloud to another cloud (of lower voltage) or from a cloud to the ground and cause a flash of lightning.
6. Why is there so much static electricity in clothes when I take them out of the dryer?
There is a lot of tumbling and rubbing back and forth of clothes in the dryer. This builds up an electric charge just like scuffing your feet on the carpet. The very dry atmosphere of the dryer makes it difficult for the electric charge to leave the clothes.
7. What fuels can be used to make electricity?
Any energy source. Today, about 45% of our electricity is produced by burning coal. But anything that can spin a turbine can be used to make electricity.
We can burn oil or gas to boil water to make steam to turn the turbine. We can use the heat from nuclear reaction to make steam. We can use the natural steam locked inside the earth. Almost any fuel. Or we can use the pressure of falling water to turn the turbine.
8. Why can’t all the electricity be made from waterfalls and dams?
There simply aren’t enough large waterfalls or damsites in the country. So water power is used to produce only about 16% of our electricity. This is unfortunate because it’s one of the most efficient ways to make electricity.
9. Why did some electric utility companies raise their prices the same time the oil companies did?
Some utilities burn oil to make electricity. (About 15% of our electricity is produced by burning oil.) When the cost of oil went up, the cost of making electricity went up. Most states allow utilities to pass on any decrease or increase in fuel costs.
10. Why didn’t the utilities switch to coal during the oil shortage?
Some did. At those power plants where the switch was practical. At other plants, the change would have involved an extensive change in boiler equipment. This would have been very expensive, and probably wouldn’t have been finished in time to help out during the oil shortage. Also, in many cases, state and local air-pollution laws regulate the use of coal.
11. How long will hour coal and oil last?
Nobody knows exactly, because there are still some coal and oil deposits left to be discovered. However, we do know that oil is in short enough supply that we would be wise to conserve it.
Our supply of coal is abundant, enough to last for hundreds of years. However, not all of this coal is clean-burning. And not all of it is easily mined.
12. Why isn’t somebody looking for some other way to make electricity?
They have been. Long before the recent oil shortage, thousands of engineers and scientists were looking for new ways to make electricity. Some of these new ways are in operation today.
Nuclear power, for example. Work is also continuing on new kinds of nuclear power. (Nuclear fusion. And the fast-breeder reactor that will make more fuel than it uses.)
Other ideas are also being studied. Ways to harness the winds, the tides and the sun, for example. Some ideas are more practical than others. But with our growing need for electricity, we have to consider every possible way to make it.
13. Is nuclear electricity more dangerous than regular electricity?
No. Actually, there’s no such thing as nuclear electricity. All electricity is exactly the same. It doesn’t matter what energy source is used to make the electricity.
14. How does a nuclear power plant make electricity?
A nuclear plant makes electricity much the same way any power plant does. It boils water to make steam to turn the turbine to make the electricity. The difference is it uses the heat from nuclear reaction instead of fire to boil the water.
15. Doesn’t a nuclear plant release dangerous amounts of radioactivity in the air?
No. Nuclear power plants are designed to give off practically no radiation. In fact, if you lived next door to a nuclear plant, you’d receive only a fraction of the radiation you already get from nature almost anywhere on earth.
(Surprisingly, you’d actually receive more radiation during one flight across the country in a jet liner than you’d get in a year living next to a nuclear plant.)
16. What is “thermal pollution?”
“Thermal pollution” is the term sometimes used to describe the warming of water as it passes through power plants. It’s not entirely accurate to call it “pollution,” because this warmer water isn’t necessarily a problem. (Some marine life actually thrives in the warmer waters near power plants.)
Usually, the temperature in the surrounding waters is raised only a few degrees. In areas where heat discharge has been a problem, utilities have sometimes spent millions of dollars on cooling towers, ponds, and canals.
17. Why can’t electricity be made from the sun?
It can. But right now, it’s a very expensive proposition. One of the reasons is that the sun spreads its energy over a very wide area.
To capture useful amounts of this energy, we would have to build enormous solar collectors. The solar collectors would have to be at least 10 square miles in area to produce the electricity we get from a modern 1000 megawatt power plant.
Another problem is that we need electricity 24 hours a day and the sun doesn’t shine 24 hours a day. However, research is continuing, and one day the sun may become a very important source of electricity.
18. Will America ever run out of electricity?
Not if we plan ahead. Not if we recognize the growing need for electricity. And plan now how we are going to meet this need.
General Electric, as a major supplier of equipment to make electricity, is working with utilities to supply the electricity we’ll need. And still conserve our natural resources. GE is also working to develop new ways to make electricity. To make sure there will always be enough electricity for all of America’s needs.
Progress for people. General Electric