How does electricity work?

6 Answers
There are a few things in life....well, several, really....that I feel very ignorant about. One of my kids recently asked me where electricity comes from, and how it arrives at our home. I felt silly that I didn't have much to offer him as an answer. And I feel silly asking for the answer, but here goes: How is electricity made, and how does it get to homes, businesses, etc.?

On a very basic level, most electricity that we use comes from coils of copper. It was discovered a long time ago that moving a magnet around near a copper coil will induce an electrical current inside the metal. This is due to some of the laws of physics, which I won't go into here. What is important to know is that virtually all power stations operate on this principle.

The most common way is to burn fossil fuel or use nuclear heat to boil water and generate steam. This steam then turns a turbine, which is basically a gigantic coil of copper wire and a huge magnet. Alternatively you can harness the power of gravity, in the form of falling water, to turn your turbines. Such is the case in hydro-electric dams. Other renewable power sources, such as wind farms and geo-thermal stations also operate by turning turbines in one way or another.

The major exception to this is solar power. In this case special materials operate, using a different property of physics called the photo-electric effect, to turn photons from the sun directly into electrical current without the need for a turbine.

As far as transmission goes, it's pretty straightforward. Once the current is generated inside the turbine, all you have to do is hook up a conductive wire (usually also copper) and that electricity will flow out onto the grid, and eventually into your house through the power lines. It's a bit more complicated than that, in that there are transformer stations which step the current up and down so that it can be transported long distances, but that's basically the whole of it. Hope this makes some kind of sense!


The funny thing claire is that no one know exactly how electricity works because they still havent decided what it actually IS...humans have been able to contain it--it is a form of energy--it can be produced through combustion, fission, fusion, wind and hydroelectric and it can be transferred to your home to run appliances via resisted lines using alternating or direct current--depending on your country--my friend runs a huge hydro plant and even he couldnt tell you what electricity actually is!

here is an interesting article by an electrical engineer---http://amasci.com/miscon/whatis.html

hugs to your kids claire--i always think of the great thing you are doing...you wicked rock!


The simplest way it can be explained is that between collections of positive and negative charges there exists a potential difference. If a conducting path exists between the two charge groups, charges will flow from one to the other to make an electric current..Charges that build up on an insulator and so unable to flow is termed static electricity. A current flow in a single direction is termed Direct Current or DC, a current whose direction of flow reverses periodically is called Alternating Current (AC) and the number of times it reverses per unit of time is called its frequency measured in cycles per second or Herz (Hz). Household current is Alternating Current, 50 to 60 Hz dependent on country. .


I'll give a shot at trying to explain it in simple terms. Electricity is basically electrons in the atoms of a conductor (like metals), jumping from atom to atom endlessly. All it takes, is the conductor to be in a loop, something (like magnets in a generator or a battery) within the loop to give them the push, and something for them to do along the way. As they move along, they will create a magnetic field and/or create heat from friction in the conductor. Magnetism is what makes motors work and heat is what makes light bulbs light up. I can't describe any more simply than that. I don't know if that will help explain it to your kids, especially, the electrons and atoms part!


If your children ask something you are clueless about, it really is OK to say, "That's a great question, let's go look it up!" By watching you learn, they learn, and they learn how to seek out answers on their own.

My 7-year old son's latest baffle-me question: "Why do some cartoon people only have three fingers and a thumb like my baseball glove?"


Electrons move from one atom to another is an electric current. The electrons move because they are attracted to differences in polarity. When the line is open the electrons stop moving.