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August 29, 2006 > Power in the socket

Power in the socket

It lurks in sockets that reach behind walls. Ready for instant use, it has traveled hundreds of miles stealthily in wires above and below ground, to reach millions of destinations. This magical stuff has the power to make just about anything happen and yet, for most of us, it is a commonplace miracle doing its work without much effort or thought on our part. We call it electricity and in many locations around the world, it is expected to be at our beck and call every second of every day to provide light, heat, transportation, turn motors and power a myriad of other tasks.

In recent years, production of electricity has moved to a more prominent place in our minds as warnings of shortages are matched with announcements of technological advances. The complex path between generation and use requires the efforts and expertise of many professionals, some local citizens, who work on and under our local streets, high above on poles and towers and in less visible occupations to make sure power flows at the turn of a switch.

This series will explain the generation of electricity and the means by which it is received by consumers. We will attempt to start with the history and a basic understanding of this power source, how it is generated and transmitted, then gaze into the near future to see what technology has in store for us. This series is not intended to be a physicist's scientific manual or anything even close to it. Instead, these articles will attempt to give a basic (and imperfect) understanding of how we are able to harness electric power for our everyday lives.

To begin, it is probably best to think like a scientist and understand that our physical world is really a conglomeration of very tiny bits and pieces of matter (too small to see with the naked eye) that are in constant movement, even in what we call solid stuff. Some of these little pieces are attracted to each other and form groups called "atoms." Current theory says that these groups can be of many sizes and include a number of parts in different amounts. These differences determine how the group acts and are called "elements."

Three basic components of the atom group are a central core group (nucleus) of particles called "protons" and "neutrons" surrounded by smaller and very energetic bodies called "electrons" that spin in concentric rings, shells or clouds around the core. There is a lot of empty space between the core of an atom and the electrons surrounding it. As an example, if the core was the size of a tennis ball, to include the electrons surrounding it, the space used would encompass the Empire State Building in New York City!

Protons and electrons are attracted to each other by opposite electrical charges so, just as a satellite orbits the earth, electrons orbit around the core of protons and neutrons. Scientists have assigned a label of positive charge to protons and negative charge to electrons. Neutrons are neutral without a charge but congregate with protons. The most basic element known is Hydrogen which has only one proton and one electron (no neutrons) while Carbon has six protons, six neutrons and six electrons.

Each surrounding shell of electrons can only hold a certain number of electrons and as these orbits get further away, in some cases electrons can become less stable in orbit and jump from one atom to another that has a place for them. Sometimes, with a bit of a push, a stream of electrons can move at once. Moving electrons are called "electricity."

Electricity is a natural phenomenon. One of the most impressive examples is the flow from clouds to ground when lightning strikes. Understanding and harnessing this power has been developed over a century of experiments and devices. In our next article, we will discuss how and at what cost electricity is generated and transferred to consumers. Why electricity costs fluctuate and methods to cut your PG&E bill.

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