How do they make electricity?

electricity_power_girl

In Britain, it is easy to take our reliable electrical power supply for granted. Many things in our homes, schools, work places and public spaces are powered by electricity. Think for a minute about all the things you’ve done today – how many of them used electricity?

I’m sitting in my kitchen, using a laptop to type this blogpost with the lights on, sipping a hot cup of tea. I wonder how much electricity I’m using right now?

So, how do we make electricity? And how do we keep our power supply reliable?

Electricity is the movement of electrons between atoms. I talked about static electricity when I answered the question ‘where does static come from?‘ and described how a build-up of electrons can cause lightning or make my hair stand on end. But if electrons keep moving from one atom to another, then to another, then to another, we can imagine them flowing along (a bit like water in a river) and we call this electron flow an ‘electric current’. The movement of electrons creates energy that we can use.

So, how do we make the electricity we use in our homes, schools and workplaces?

One of the ways we do it is using special factories called ‘power stations’. Inside a power station, water is heated up to make steam and the steam is used to turn generators, which create a flow of electrons. This [short video] (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SeXG8K5_UvU) describes how electricity is made from coal. The electricity made in power stations like this travels along metal cables to get to where it is needed. So, when you plug a machine in to a wall socket, you join it up to this electricity supply to give it the energy to work.

There are other ways to make electricity, too. Wind turbines use wind power to turn generators to make electricity. We can also use the light and heat from the Sun to create electricity by solar power. And we can even use the movement of water to make electricity in a process we call hydroelectric power.

By the way, this question was sent through to me via Twitter (@SScimum). If you have a science question you’d like me to try to answer, get in touch and I’ll see what I can do! But remember that I can only answer one question per week…

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