For many Americans, power is simply what comes out of an outlet when they need it. In the modern world, most of the things which we need to survive are presented to us conveniently and ready for use. We enjoy meat without raising or slaughtering animals, we enjoy grain without ever setting foot in the fields. Aside from a small minority involved in the production of our natural resources, most of us are quite disconnected from their production. Few people really understand the intricacies of the system which is an integral part of the way we live. In reality, there are incredibly complicated systems in play which help to produce, distribute, and monitor the power grid.
For most people, it isn’t until a power outage occurs that we finally realize how many things we use electricity for. We use it for heating, light, storage of food, cooking, entertainment, and communication. And unlike resources such as gas, water, or food, it is very difficult to store electricity in any real quantity. Instead, it must be generated constantly as it is produced. While there are some attempts to store it in batteries, for the most part this can only take a very small percentage of the load on the grid. Some other electricity storage methods include converting the electricity into another form of energy (such as gravitational potential energy), and then later converting it back to electricity. For example, some power storage methods pump water to a reservoir which is at a high elevation when the grid has excess power. Once there is too little power in the grid, the water can be allowed to flow down through turbines, returning this energy to the grid. However, no method completely allows energy to be stored at full efficiency, so reliance on methods such as this always has its costs. This is why it is so difficult to maintain an electric grid.
Initial generation of electric power is done in a variety of different ways. Some power plants operate using fossil fuels to convert energy into electricity. Others use alternative power sources such as hydroelectric, solar, or wind. These plants are operated by many different entities, and their existence is a protection against electrical issues. Because there are so many sources, not only does competition help to keep electrical prices low and fairly constant, but it also means that disruptions in one energy source do not cripple the grid. This diversification of sources is a key part of our modern electrical stability.
After power is generated, it must be transmitted. In order to decrease the amount of power lost in transmission, it is stepped up to a very high voltage. This high voltage transmission helps to prevent power from dissipating during transmission. The power which travels long distances will always be stepped up to this high voltage. This massive network of interconnected power lines allows the grid to send power to wherever it is needed. This also serves as a way to ensure that power supply is constant and uninterrupted. Because there are so many areas and people served, there will be a more constant average demand for power.
Once power has been transported through the high voltage wires, it will have to be stepped down to voltages which are appropriate for consumption. This will be done at a local substation, and then electricity can again be disseminated to the customer. This consumption of electricity at local level is a result of your local facilities who can change the voltage to a much lower level. What this level is depends on the consumer. For household use in the US, it is normally 120V. However, for commercial applications this can vary. The end destinations for grid power can vary. They can be used in industrial systems, to power plants and factories. They can be used for charging electric vehicles or in electric rail cars. And it will be used to power our computers, refrigerators, HVAC, stoves, security systems, cars, phones, and clocks.
Once the electricity has been converted to being usable in our homes, our home electrical systems take over. Our meters measure the amount of power we consume, and if we produce any power (say, through home solar panels), this power is fed back into the grid if we allow it. Our individual consumption is just one small piece of the massive system comprising the modern electrical grid.
Understanding this system can help us better appreciate the complexity of the modern world, and the ingenuity of those who have built it. There are countless systems working constantly to help us live our comfortable lives. So the next time you plug something in, take a moment to appreciate the amount of work which has gone on to allow you to do that.