Just as electricity can make magnetism, so magnetism can make electricity. A dynamo is a bit like an electric motor inside. When you pedal your bicycle, the dynamo clipped to the wheel spins around. Inside the dynamo, there is a heavy core made from iron wire wrapped tightly around—much like the inside of a motor. The core spins freely inside some large fixed magnets. As you pedal, the core rotates inside these outer magnets and generates electricity. The electricity flows out from the dynamo and powers your bicycle lamp.
The electric generators used in power plants work in exactly the same way, only on a much bigger scale. Instead of being powered by someone’s legs, pedaling furiously, these large generators are driven by steam. The steam is made by burning fuels or by nuclear reactions. Power plants can make enormous amounts of electricity, but they waste quite a lot of the energy they produce. The energy has to flow from the plant, where it is made, to the homes, offices, and factories where it is used down many miles of electric power cable. Making electricity in a power plant and delivering it to a distant building can waste up to two thirds of the energy that was originally present in the fuel!
Electricity and electronics
Electricity is about using relatively large currents of electrical energy to do useful jobs, like driving a washing machine or powering an electric drill. Electronics is a very different kind of electricity. It’s a way of controlling things using incredibly tiny currents of electricity—sometimes even individual electrons! Suppose you have an electronic clothes washing machine. Large currents of electricity come from the power outlet (mains supply) to make the drum rotate and heat the water. Smaller currents of electricity operate the electronic components in the washing machine’s programmer unit. These tiny currents control the bigger currents, making the drum rotate back and forth, starting and stopping the water supply, and so on. Read more in our main article on electronics.
The power of electricity
Before the invention of electricity, people had to make energy wherever and whenever they needed it. Thus, they had to make wood or coal fires to heat their homes or cook food. The invention of electricity changed all that. It meant energy could be made in one place then supplied over long distances to wherever it was needed. People no longer had to worry about making energy for heating or cooking: all they had to do was plug in and switch on—and the energy was there as soon as they wanted it.
Another good thing about electricity is that it’s like a common “language” that all modern appliances can “speak.” You can run a car using the energy in gasoline, or you can cook food on a barbecue in your garden using charcoal, though you can’t run your car on charcoal or cook food with gasoline. But electricity is quite different. You can cook with it, run cars on it, heat your home with it, and charge your cellphone with it. This is the great beauty and the power of electricity: it’s energy for everyone, everywhere, and always.
We can measure electricity in a number of different ways, but a few measurements are particularly important.
Photo: You can use a digital multimeter like this to measure voltage, current, and resistance.
The voltage is a kind of electrical force that makes electricity move through a wire and we measure it in volts. The bigger the voltage, the more current will tend to flow. So a 12-volt car battery will generally produce more current than a 1.5-volt flashlight battery.
Voltage does not, itself, go anywhere: it’s quite wrong to talk about voltage “flowing through” things. What moves through the wire in a circuit is electrical current: a steady flow of electrons, measured in amperes (or amps).
Together, voltage and current give you electrical power. The bigger the voltage and the bigger the current, the more electrical power you have. We measure electric power in units called watts. Something that uses 1 watt uses 1 joule of energy each second.
The electric power in a circuit is equal to the voltage × the current (in other words: watts = volts × amps). So if you have a 100-watt (100 W) light and you know your electricity supply is rated as 120 volts (typical household voltage in the United States), the current flowing must be 100/120 = 0.8 amps. If you’re in Europe, your household voltage is more likely 230 volts. So if you use the same 100-watt light, the current flowing is 100/230 = 0.4 amps. The light burns just as brightly in both countries and uses the same amount of power in each case; in Europe it uses a higher voltage and lower current; in the States, there’s a lower voltage and higher current. (One quick note: 120 volts and 230 volts are the “nominal” or standard household voltages—the voltages you’re supposed to have, in theory. In practice, your home might have more or less voltage than this, for all sorts of reasons, but mainly because of how far you are from your local power plant or power supply.)
Power is a measurement of how much energy you’re using each second. To find out the total amount of energy an electric appliance uses, you have to multiply the power it uses per second by the total number of seconds you use it for. The result you get is measured in units of power × time, often converted into a standard unit called the kilowatt hour (kWh). If you used an electric toaster rated at 1000 watts (1 kilowatt) for a whole hour, you’d use 1 kilowatt hour of energy; you’d use the same amount of energy burning a 2000 watt toaster for 0.5 hours or a 100-watt lamp for 10 hours. See how it works?
Electricity meters (like the one shown in the photo above, from my house) show the total number of kilowatt hours of electricity you’ve used. 1 kilowatt hour is equal to 3.6 million joules (J) of energy (or 3.6 megajoules if you prefer).
You can measure your energy consumption automatically with an energy monitor.