What is Electricity?

A tutorial on how electricity is generated and where it comes from.

lightbulb with hot filament
electricity flows through the lightbulb filament, as a result the filament begins to glow and starts emitting light. Oliver Cleve/Getty Images


Electricity is a form of energy. Electricity is the flow of electrons. All matter is made up of atoms, and an atom has a center, called a nucleus. The nucleus contains positively charged particles called protons and uncharged particles called neutrons. The nucleus of an atom is surrounded by negatively charged particles called electrons. The negative charge of an electron is equal to the positive charge of a proton, and the number of electrons in an atom is usually equal to the number of protons.

When the balancing force between protons and electrons is upset by an outside force, an atom may gain or lose an electron. When electrons are "lost" from an atom, the free movement of these electrons constitutes an electric current.

Electricity is a basic part of nature and it is one of our most widely used forms of energy. We get electricity, which is a secondary energy source, from the conversion of other sources of energy, like coal, natural gas, oil, nuclear power and other natural sources, which are called primary sources. Many cities and towns were built alongside waterfalls (a primary source of mechanical energy) that turned water wheels to perform work. Before electricity generation began slightly over 100 years ago, houses were lit with kerosene lamps, food was cooled in iceboxes, and rooms were warmed by wood-burning or coal-burning stoves. Beginning with Benjamin Franklin's experiment with a kite one stormy night in Philadelphia, the principles of electricity gradually became understood.

In the mid-1800s, everyone's life changed with the invention of the electric light bulb. Prior to 1879, electricity had been used in arc lights for outdoor lighting. The lightbulb's invention used electricity to bring indoor lighting to our homes.


To solve the problem of sending electricity over long distances, George Westinghouse developed a device called a transformer.

The transformer allowed electricity to be efficiently transmitted over long distances. This made it possible to supply electricity to homes and businesses located far from the electric generating plant.

Despite its great importance in our daily lives, most of us rarely stop to think what life would be like without electricity. Yet like air and water, we tend to take electricity for granted. Everyday, we use electricity to do many functions for us -- from lighting and heating/cooling our homes, to being the power source for televisions and computers. Electricity is a controllable and convenient form of energy used in the applications of heat, light and power.

Today, the United States (U.S.) electric power industry is set up to ensure that an adequate supply of electricity is available to meet all demand requirements at any given instant.


An electric generator is a device for converting mechanical energy into electrical energy. The process is based on the relationship between magnetism and electricity. When a wire or any other electrically conductive material moves across a magnetic field, an electric current occurs in the wire. The large generators used by the electric utility industry have a stationary conductor.

A magnet attached to the end of a rotating shaft is positioned inside a stationary conducting ring that is wrapped with a long, continuous piece of wire. When the magnet rotates, it induces a small electric current in each section of wire as it passes. Each section of wire constitutes a small, separate electric conductor. All the small currents of individual sections add up to one current of considerable size. This current is what is used for electric power.


An electric utility power station uses either a turbine, engine, water wheel, or other similar machine to drive an electric generator or a device that converts mechanical or chemical energy to electricity. Steam turbines, internal-combustion engines, gas combustion turbines, water turbines, and wind turbines are the most common methods to generate electricity.

Most of the electricity in the United States is produced in steam turbines. A turbine converts the kinetic energy of a moving fluid (liquid or gas) to mechanical energy. Steam turbines have a series of blades mounted on a shaft against which steam is forced, thus rotating the shaft connected to the generator. In a fossil-fueled steam turbine, the fuel is burned in a furnace to heat water in a boiler to produce steam.

Coal, petroleum (oil), and natural gas are burned in large furnaces to heat water to make steam that in turn pushes on the blades of a turbine. Did you know that coal is the largest single primary source of energy used to generate electricity in the United States? In 1998, more than half (52%) of the county's 3.62 trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity used coal as its source of energy.

Natural gas, in addition to being burned to heat water for steam, can also be burned to produce hot combustion gases that pass directly through a turbine, spinning the blades of the turbine to generate electricity. Gas turbines are commonly used when electricity utility usage is in high demand. In 1998, 15% of the nation's electricity was fueled by natural gas.

Petroleum can also be used to make steam to turn a turbine. Residual fuel oil, a product refined from crude oil, is often the petroleum product used in electric plants that use petroleum to make steam. Petroleum was used to generate less than three percent (3%) of all electricity generated in U.S. electricity plants in 1998.

Nuclear power is a method in which steam is produced by heating water through a process called nuclear fission. In a nuclear power plant, a reactor contains a core of nuclear fuel, primarily enriched uranium. When atoms of uranium fuel are hit by neutrons they fission (split), releasing heat and more neutrons. Under controlled conditions, these other neutrons can strike more uranium atoms, splitting more atoms, and so on. Thereby, continuous fission can take place, forming a chain reaction releasing heat.

The heat is used to turn water into steam, that, in turn, spins a turbine that generates electricity. In 2015, Nuclear power is used to generate 19.47 percent of all the country's electricity.

As of 2013, hydropower accounts for 6.8 percent of U.S. electricity generation. Its a process in which flowing water is used to spin a turbine connected to a generator. There are mainly two basic types of hydroelectric systems that produce electricity. In the first system, flowing water accumulates in reservoirs created by the use of dams. The water falls through a pipe called a penstock and applies pressure against the turbine blades to drive the generator to produce electricity. In the second system, called run-of-river, the force of the river current (rather than falling water) applies pressure to the turbine blades to produce electricity.


Geothermal power comes from heat energy buried beneath the surface of the earth. In some areas of the country, magma (molten matter under the earth's crust) flows close enough to the surface of the earth to heat underground water into steam, which can be tapped for use at steam-turbine plants. As of 2013, this energy source generates less than 1% of the electricity in the country, though an assessment by the U.S. Energy Information Administration that nine western states can potentially produce enough electricity to supply 20 percent of the nation’s energy needs.

Solar power is derived from the energy of the sun. However, the sun's energy is not available full-time and it is widely scattered. The processes used to produce electricity using the sun's energy have historically been more expensive than using conventional fossil fuels. Photovoltaic conversion generates electric power directly from the light of the sun in a photovoltaic (solar) cell. Solar-thermal electric generators use the radiant energy from the sun to produce steam to drive turbines. In 2015, less than 1% of the nation's electricity was supplied by solar power.

Wind power is derived from the conversion of the energy contained in wind into electricity. Wind power, like the sun, is usually an expensive source of producing electricity. In 2014, It was used for roughly 4.44 percent of the nation's electricity. A wind turbine is similar to a typical wind mill.

Biomass (wood, municipal solid waste (garbage), and agricultural waste, such as corn cobs and wheat straw, are some other energy sources for producing electricity. These sources replace fossil fuels in the boiler. The combustion of wood and waste creates steam that is typically used in conventional steam-electric plants. In 2015, biomass accounts for 1.57 percent of the electricity generated in the United States.

The electricity produced by a generator travels along cables to a transformer, which changes electricity from low voltage to high voltage. Electricity can be moved long distances more efficiently using high voltage. Transmission lines are used to carry the electricity to a substation. Substations have transformers that change the high voltage electricity into lower voltage electricity. From the substation, distribution lines carry the electricity to homes, offices and factories, which require low voltage electricity.


Electricity is measured in units of power called watts. It was named to honor James Watt, the inventor of the steam engine. One watt is a very small amount of power. It would require nearly 750 watts to equal one horsepower. A kilowatt represents 1,000 watts. A kilowatt-hour (kWh) is equal to the energy of 1,000 watts working for one hour. The amount of electricity a power plant generates or a customer uses over a period of time is measured in kilowatt-hours (kWh). Kilowatt-hours are determined by multiplying the number of kW's required by the number of hours of use. For example, if you use a 40-watt light bulb 5 hours a day, you have used 200 watts of power, or .2 kilowatt-hours of electrical energy.

More on Electricity: History, Electronics, and Famous Inventors