Where Does My Electricity Come From?

My daughter recently started asking questions that I couldn’t answer. One of her teachers assigned the class an “origins” project, where they had to choose something they could bring to class and prepare a report on where all the pieces of it came from. My daughter chose crayons, and we researched Crayola, paraffin wax, and petroleum. One kid in class researched his science textbook. That led to the legislature. One kid brought in a Whopper.

My daughter loved the project. But for weeks, she’s been pointing at everything she can see and asking me: “Dad, where does coffee come from? Dad, where do diamonds came from? Dad, where does electricity come from?”

Coffee and diamonds I don’t know about, and I don’t really want to. But when she brought up electricity, I thought, finally something I can handle. I do it every day, working for Liberty Power. I sat down with my daughter that Sunday and together we researched how electric power in the U.S. gets to our lightbulbs.

It turns out, it’s kind of complicated. In the U.S., electricity is generated, by volume, from: coal, natural gas, nuclear fusion, hydropower, wind, biomass, petroleum, solar energy, and geothermal vents. Of course, telling my daughter this just got her asking what each of these were, and where they came from. So here’s the rundown:

Coal

Origins

  • Coal is prehistoric biomass: the accumulated remains of millions of years of plant life, primarily trees and ferns, from fresh or saltwater swamps. Buried by sand and silt for millennia, heat and pressure converted these remains into organic rocks.
  • Coal burned in U.S. power plants is mostly sourced from surface and underground mines in the Appalachian, central Midwest, and Rocky Mountain regions. The three largest coal contributors are Wyoming, West Virginia, and Kentucky.
  • 70% of coal is transported from mines to power plants by train. Trucks and barges each transport around another 11%.

Pros

  • Coal is energy dense: when burned, coal generates a large amount of heat and energy for its size.
  • Coal is abundant domestically, decreasing reliance on foreign energy sources.

Cons

  • Coal emits greenhouse gasses, like carbon, when burned. These collect in the atmosphere and contribute to climate change, which has significant detrimental effects such as rising seas and more powerful storms.
  • Coal mining damages the local environment and provides fewer and fewer jobs for miners as automation increasingly reduces the need for human labor.

Natural Gas

Origins

  • Natural gas is also prehistoric biomass. Unlike coal, it is formed from water-based plants, animals, and microorganisms that were buried by sediments from rivers and oceans
  • Natural gas is found trapped beneath, or embedded in, layers of rock underground and beneath the ocean. Deep wells are drilled to reservoirs of gas, which is then pumped to the surface. Recent technological advances have allowed for horizontal drilling into rock beds in some cases. These horizontal bores are then pumped full of high pressure water and other fluids to fracture the rock and release large quantities of gas. This process is known as fracking; it has opened up large new areas for natural gas extraction, principally in Pennsylvania, Texas, and North Dakota.
  • Natural gas is primarily transported from wells to power plants via a series of pipelines. Gathering lines collect gas from wells and pump it to compressor stations, which speed it up to pump it through larger interstate pipelines. Interstate pipelines transport gas long distances to storage facilities and power plants. Flows are controlled by a series of valves, metering stations, and central control stations.

Pros

  • The recent advances in fracking technology have unlocked enormous reserves of domestic natural gas, concentrated primarily beneath upper Appalachia, West Texas, and North Dakota.
  • While natural gas does emit greenhouse gases like carbon and methane, it emits far fewer of these than coal does.
  • Like coal, natural gas is energy dense and releases a large amount of energy for its size when burned.
  • The recent boom in domestic natural gas extraction has created large numbers of jobs for workers in drilling and pipeline construction, as well as in tertiary industries such as well pad landscaping, hospitality, real estate, and service, primarily in rural areas.

Cons

  • Fracking has the potential to cause serious environmental damage. Earthquakes have become more frequent in areas where fracking occurs, which some believe are linked to disturbances in the shale rock. Also, chemicals in fracking fluid may spill from containment ponds and storage facilities into the local water system.
  • While fracking does bring jobs to rural areas, few of these jobs go to local residents.
  • While taxes are collected by local governments, these do not necessarily cover the increased infrastructure costs of road damage caused by heavy, continuous truck traffic or the construction of the new roads needed by the fracking industry.

Nuclear Fission

Origins

  • Nuclear plants do not burn fuel. Instead, the decomposition of uranium molecules in a process known as fission, releases heat, which boils water and turns a turbine to generate electricity.
  • Uranium is a naturally occurring radioactive element. Two isotopes are used: U-238, and U-235. While the U.S. does mine its own uranium, principally from New Mexico and Wyoming, 83% of uranium used in U.S. plants is imported. The U.S. buys uranium from Canada, Russia, Australia, Kazakhstan, Namibia, Uzbekistan, Niger, South Africa, Brazil, China, Malawi, and the Ukraine, in that order.
  • Uranium ore is mined, then removed from surrounding ores with solvents that produce uranium oxide. It is then sent to conversion plants, where chemical processes convert it to gaseous uranium hexaflouride, which cools into solid fuel. After an enrichment process increases the fissionable material in the uranium, the fuel is converted to powder and loaded into pellets, which can be inserted into nuclear reactors.

Pros

  • Nuclear power is relatively cheap, and provides an enormous amount of energy for its size. Most of the largest power plants in the U.S. are nuclear plants, which provide a serious proportion of the base load power the U.S. consumes.
  • Nuclear power does not contribute to climate change due to the release of greenhouse gases. In this respect, it is a cleaner fuel than coal and natural gas.

Cons

  • Spent nuclear fuel is still deadly, and dangerously radioactive. It will remain so for centuries and is very difficult to transport or dispose of. Storage, transport, and disposal remain unsolved problems for many nuclear power companies, as well as for the government.
  • As 83% of nuclear plant grade power is imported, it increases reliance on foreign governments for domestic energy supply.
  • Should an accident happen that disrupts their cooling systems, nuclear plants can melt down, releasing enormous amounts of highly radioactive particles into the local land, water, and atmosphere. Examples of meltdowns include Chernobyl in Russia and Fukushima in Japan. Although the Chernobyl meltdown occurred decades ago, the area is still deadly radioactive. Radioactive particles from the Fukushima meltdown are being released into the Pacific Ocean, and currents are carrying them as far as California.

Hydropower

Origins

  • This one’s simpler. Turbines are built within flowing rivers, beneath lakes or on reservoirs. As gravity pulls water past the turbine’s blades, electricity is generated. Water is brought back uphill either by man-made pumps and pipes, or by the sun’s energy. Radiant energy from the sun heats liquid water to gas, which rises in the atmosphere until it cools enough to turn back into liquid. It then falls as rain.

Pros

  • Nuclear power is relatively cheap, and provides an enormous amount of energy for its size. Most of the largest power plants in the U.S. are nuclear plants, which provide a serious proportion of the base load power the U.S. consumes.
  • Nuclear power does not contribute to climate change due to the release of greenhouse gases. In this respect, it is a cleaner fuel than coal and natural gas.

Cons

  • Hydropower is only available in areas with abundant water resources. Many of the most promising hydropower sources have already been tapped, and the total energy output is unable to meet demand by itself.
  • Droughts can diminish water supplies available for hydropower.
  • Dams are often required to create holding ponds that can be released through hydropower turbines. These dams can disrupt local wildlife, and eminent domain has been invoked to remove entire towns to flood for reservoirs.
  • Dams require continual maintenance, which the U.S. has seriously neglected. When allowed to deteriorate too far, or when faced with increased pressure from heavy rainfall or snowmelt, dams can break, releasing floods which can cause major damage to lives and property down current.

Wind

Origins

  • Wind power is similar to hydropower. The sun heats air molecules unevenly over the surface of land and water. As this air heats, it rises, leaving areas of lower relative pressure where it rises. Cooler air then moves to fill these areas of lower pressure. We call this horizontal movement of air “wind.” That wind turns enormous fan blades, which turn a turbine to generate electricity.

Pros

  • Wind energy does not emit climate changing gases.
  • Wind energy is abundantly available across the U.S.
  • Wind turbine fabrication and installation is a growing industry, creating jobs for U.S. workers.

Cons

  • Wind energy is intermittent; it is only available when the wind is blowing. While battery storage technologies [Insert link to CA Battery when live] are advancing, they have yet to reach the stage where wind energy can be cheaply and reliably stored for periods of atmospheric calm.
  • Wind turbines have been responsible for the deaths of many birds, notably bald eagles.

Biomass

Origins

  • While coal, natural gas, and oil are examples of prehistoric biomass, trees, municipal waste, and landfill off-gases are examples of modern biomass. [Link to Biomass Article when live] These fuels are burned to heat water, which turns turbines as pressurized steam to generate electricity.

Pros

  • Unlike fossil fuels, these trees, municipal waste, and landfill gases are continuously regenerating, and, as such, are classified as renewable energy generators.
  • Municipalities can use biomass plants to solve issues rising from old landfills and waste disposal.
  • Biomass plants can subsidize municipal energy costs economically and reliably.

Cons

  • Biomass, which burns materials to release energy, naturally releases gasses into the environment. These gasses can contribute to climate change.
  • Biomass fuels are not as energy-dense as coal or natural gas.

Solar Energy

Origins

  • Enormous heat and gravity-like pressures cause hydrogen to fuse as helium, and helium to fuse with other, heavier molecules in the core of the sun. The tremendous electromagnetic energy this releases takes about 8 seconds to travel the ~93 million miles through the vacuum of space from the sun to the earth.
  • Solar energy is converted to electricity by photovoltaic panels. These panels are made of thin layers of silicon encased in glass. The top layer of silicon is treated with phosphorous, creating a negative charge by adding electrons. The bottom layer is coated with boron, which creates a positive charge by subtracting electrons. The difference in charge creates an electric field. As the sun hits the silicon, it kicks free loose electrons, which are collected by the electric field and transferred via metal plates into wires where they can be used as electricity.

Pros

  • Sunlight is inexhaustible, the ultimate source of renewable energy. By the time the sun burns out in about 5 billion years, who knows if we will still be on this planet.
  • Photovoltaic panels can be installed in a dispersed manner. While no homeowner burns coal or uses nuclear power on a residential scale, they can feasibly generate their home’s power from panels on the roof.

Cons

  • Like wind power, solar power is intermittent; it is only available when the sun is shining. Again, battery storage has not advanced to the point where it can store solar power to provide energy at night on a large scale. As technology advances, this may become more feasible.
  • While there’s plenty of domestic sunlight, domestic producers of photovoltaic panels have seen their market share diminished by imports from countries like China and Germany. While installation and maintenance provide domestic jobs, factory production of solar panels does not currently benefit U.S. workers to its maximum potential.
  • While the total cost of photovoltaic power is decreasing, solar energy remains more expensive than energy produced by fossil fuel or nuclear sources.

Geothermal Vents

Origins

  • Unlike every other type of electricity, geothermal does not ultimately originate in the nuclear fires of the sun. However, like most other types, it operates by pushing steam through a turbine. Hot water deep below the surface of the earth is pumped upwards and converted to gas, which spins the turbine blades and produces electricity.

Pros

  • Geothermal, when available, provides a cheap and nearly inexhaustible supply of heat and power for homeowners and businesses.

Cons

  • These plants can only be built where geothermal heat is close enough to the surface to tap.
  • While the ongoing cost of operating a geothermal plant is entirely reasonable, the initial installation and exploration costs can be prohibitively expensive.

How Electricity Travels from the Power Plant to Your Home

By the time my daughter and I got through these different energy sources, it was time for lunch. As she ate the grilled cheese sandwich I cooked for her on our electric stove (probably coal or nuclear powered), she chewed on what we’d learned that morning. “Okay, Dad,” she asked. “But how does it get to our house?” I looked out the window. The steady drizzle showed no signs of letting up. I suppose yard work could wait then. Besides, it was kinda nice to spend some time learning with her. I cleaned up our plates and we headed back to our research.

After a little while, she picked her head up from her tablet. “Hey, Dad, look at this,” she said. “I figured it out. Most of them work the same way. They spin a turbine, and that makes electricity.”

“Almost there,” I told her. “The turbine is only part of the mechanism. It’s really just something that can be spun by wind, water, or hot gases. Then the turbine spins a generator, and the generator makes electricity. It does that by spinning magnets near copper wire.”

“Okay,” she said. “I think that makes sense. But still, how does it get to our house?”

“Let’s take a look,” I said.

Power plants make energy, but they don’t deliver it. Once they make it, they sell it to other companies who transport it to customers. There are a few more steps in between power plants and your light bulbs.

Power Plants

Moving gasses or liquids spin turbines, which spin a rotor. The rotor spins magnets in a generator, which creates an electrical current.

Transformer 1

Like gas being pushed through a pipeline, the energy that comes directly from power plants needs to be sped up to travel long distances to where it’s needed.

Transformer stations increase the voltage of electricity—which is roughly equivalent to the speed of a current—from power plants and push this high voltage charge into the transmission grid. Voltage is how fast electrons are moving, amperage is how many electrons are moving.

Transmission Grid

This is what we call the electric highway. Large, high-voltage wires deliver electricity across states to various substations. Substations are like highway exits. Electricity gets off the highway to travel on local roads to homes and businesses.

Transformer 2

Transformers also decrease the voltage of electricity after it has traveled through the transmission grid. Just like you wouldn’t want to drive 70 mph through your local subdivision, you don’t want to run high-voltage electricity through low-voltage distribution wires.

Distribution Grid

This low voltage charge then travels through smaller wires to your home and business.

Just like electricity passes through many physical stages to get from the power plant to your home, it passes through many businesses. Aha! This is where a third party energy supplier comes in!

Power plants sell electricity on energy markets. While these transactions occur on computer mainframes at barely conceivable speeds, in concept they are relatively simple. Power plants bring their electricity to the market, like farmers bringing in broccoli in the back of their wagons. Depending on the supply and the demand, customers and suppliers negotiate the price. Wholesalers, utility companies, and third party energy suppliers buy electricity from these markets, and each other. Utilities and third party suppliers sell that energy to homes and businesses.

“Well, what’s the difference between utilities and third parties?” she asks.
“Let’s take a look,” I tell her.

Utilities run and maintain the transmission systems. So, third party energy suppliers, who don’t have to carry the costs of the transmission and distribution infrastructure, are able to offer competitive rates on electricity. Whether you purchase your electricity from a third party or the utility, you still must pay the utility for the cost of transmission. Often, third party suppliers are able to purchase energy in bulk from wholesalers ahead of time, then offer consumers fixed energy prices as opposed to variable rates that fluctuate based on current market prices. Fixed rate plans protect consumers from rate shifts due to spikes in demand or drops in supply. This predictability can help consumers plan their costs ahead and develop more accurate budgets. In states where the government has restructured utility monopolies to allow third party energy suppliers, consumers can choose who to buy their electricity from. In Texas, unlike in other states, consumers actually can’t even buy their electricity from utilities, they must buy it from the city they live in. Or, if their city doesn’t sell electricity, one of a variety of third-party suppliers.

“Why’s that?” she asked.

“Texas plays by their own rules,” I said.

“Okay,” she said. “I think I get it.” Outside, the sun was coming out from the clouds. In the misty space between them, we both spotted a beautiful rainbow. We watched it together for a minute. Then she looked at me and asked me: “Dad, where do rainbows come from?”

“Let’s figure that one out next week,” I said. “The sun’s coming out. How about we take a walk around the lake?”

At Liberty Power, we understand the energy industry can be complex, but we are here to make it easier. We strive to provide predictable, reliable energy plans for our customers. To learn more about our fixed-rate power plans, get in touch today.