How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works

Electric Power Distribution
Page 1 of 8 (73 Questions and Answers)

235. Can you explain power surges?
Sometimes lightning strikes a power line and deposits a large amount of charge on it. This charge has considerable electrostatic potential energy so its voltage is very large (a large positive voltage if the lightning carried positive charge, a large negative voltage if the lightning carried negative charge). A the charge flows outward along the wires, it raises the local voltages of the wires. This sudden, brief increase in the local voltages is what you mean by a power surge. Many devices (e.g. computers and televisions) can be damaged by such a surge in voltage. Even a light bulb can be damaged because the extra voltage pushes too much current through the filament and can burn it out.

236. How can we talk about positive particles flowing through wires when it is really negatively charged electrons?
The fiction of current being carried by positive charges really does work nicely. If a wire is carrying negatively charged electrons to the east, then the east end of the wire is becoming more and more negative and the west end is becoming more and more positive. The same would happen if that wire were carrying positively charged particles to the west. Even though these positively charged particles aren't really there, we can pretend that they are. By pretending that current is carried by positive particles, we don't have to worry about the arrival of a positive number of negatively charged electrons lowering the voltage of an object.

237. How does hydroelectric power work?
Hydroelectric power begins with water descending from an elevated reservoir, such as a lake in the mountains. While it's in the elevated reservoir, this water has stored energy—in the form of gravitational potential energy. As this water flows downward through a pipe, its gravitational potential energy becomes either kinetic energy or pressure potential energy or both. By the time the water arrives at the hydroelectric power plant, it is either traveling very quickly or has an enormous pressure or both. In the power plant, the water flows past the blades of a huge turbine and does work on those blades. The blades are shaped somewhat like airplane wings and they "fly" through the moving water. Since the blades are attached to a central hub, they cause this hub to rotate and allow it to turn the rotor of a huge electric generator. The rotor of this generator typically contains a giant electromagnet. The electromagnet turns within a collection of stationary wire coils and it induces electric currents in those coils. These electric currents carry power out of the generator to the homes or business that need it.

238. How does power get from the plant to my house? Where do the voltages go up and down?
The voltage is stepped up at the power plant so that a small current of very high voltage charges (high energy per charge) can carry enormous power across the countryside. When this current arrives at your city, its voltage is stepped down so that a medium current of medium high voltage charges can carry that same enormous power through your city. Finally, near your house, its voltage is again stepped down so that a large current of low voltage charges can carry this power into your house. Naturally, you do not use all of the power from the power plant yourself, so it is distributed among all of the buildings in the city.

239. How is AC converted in certain items to DC?
These devices use diodes, which are one-way devices for current. They only allow the current to flow a certain direction and block its flow the other way. With the help of some charge storage devices called capacitors, these diodes can stop the reversals of AC and turn it into DC. Those little black battery eliminators that you use for household electronic devices contain a transformer, a few diodes and a capacitor or two.

A step-up transformer has a secondary coil with many, many turns. As the current in the primary circuit flows back and forth, it creates a reversing electric field around the iron core of the transformer. This electric field pushes charges through the secondary coil so that it travels around and around the core. Each charge goes around many times, picking up more energy with each passage. By the time the charge leaves the transformer, it has lots of energy so its voltage is very high.

240. How is AC current (alternating current) made?
Usually with alternating current generators, which we will discuss next. It can also be made by electronic alternators, such as those found in the uninterruptible power supplies that provide backups for computers.

241. If current times voltage equals power, this makes it seem that high current times low voltage would equal low current times high voltage; but this is not true because of resistance. How is resistance taken into account in the current times voltage equal power equation?
Your first observation, that high current times low voltage would equal low current times high voltage is true; it means that electricity can deliver the same power in two different ways: as a large current of low energy charges or as a small current of high energy charges. That result is critical to the electrical power distribution system. The resistance problem is a side issue: it makes the delivery of power as a large current of low energy charges difficult. If you could get this current to peoples' houses without wasting its power, there would be no problem, but that delivery isn't easy. The wires waste lots of power when you try to deliver these large currents. So the electric power distribution system uses small currents of high-energy charges instead.

242. In what circumstances is a step-down transformer more advantageous than a step-up transformer and vice versa?
The transformer moves power from the primary circuit to the secondary circuit, almost without waste. The main reason for using a transformer is to change the relationship between voltage and current. Whenever you need a large current of low energy, low voltage charges, you probably want a step-down transformer. Whenever you need a small current of high energy, high voltage charges, you probably want a step-up transformer. I have already described the issues in power distribution, but transformers are used in many other devices. Step-down transformers are used to power small electronic devices instead of batteries (those little black boxes you plug into the wall socket contain transformers and some electronics to convert the resulting low voltage AC into low voltage DC). Step-up transformers are used in neon signs and bug-zappers.

243. Is it true that if you double the current through a wire then you double the voltage loss and if you halve the current then you halve the voltage loss?
Yes. When you try to push current through a wire, the voltage drop across that wire (i.e. the energy lost by each charge passing through that wire) is proportional to the number of charges flowing through that wire each second (i.e. the current through the wire). If you double the number of charges flowing through the wire each second, then each charge will lose twice as much energy (the voltage drop across the wire will double). If you halve the number of charges flowing through the wire each second, then each charge will lose half as much energy (the voltage drop across the wire will halve).

244. What are the relationships between Joules, Coulombs, Amperes, Volts, and Watts?
A Joule is a unit of energy; the capacity to do work. A Coulomb is a quantity of electric charge; equal to about 6,250,000,000,000,000,000 elementary charges. An Ampere is a measure of current; equal to the passage of 1 Coulomb of charge each second. A Volt is a measure of the energy carried by each charge; equal to 1 Joule of energy per Coulomb of charge. A Watt is a measure of power; equal to 1 Joule per second. A current of 1 Ampere at a voltage of 1 Volt carries a power of 1 Watt. That is because each Coulomb of charge carries 1 Joule of energy (1 Volt) and there is 1 Coulomb of charge moving by each second (1 Ampere). That makes for 1 Joule of energy flowing each second (1 Watt).
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