What is electricity?

16 February 2015

You might have wondered at one point or another; what actually is electricity?

It’s hard to escape; whether you look to nature and watch an electrical storm rolling in with its beautiful but powerful lightening strikes. Or, you simply go to your kitchen, flick on a light and open the fridge; electricity is a part of our everyday lives.

But to really understand what electricity actually is, we need to take a look at the science behind it at the atomic level.

It all starts with atoms

Atoms are small particles and put simply, they are the basic building blocks of everything around us, whether it is our chairs, desks or even our own body. Atoms are made up of even smaller elements, called protons, electrons and neutrons.

When electrical and magnetic forces move electrons from one atom to another, an electrical current is formed. 

Take a look at this video to see electrons in action.

Do you really understand what electricity is?

How is electricity made?

Firstly, to generate electricity, you’ll require a fuel source, such as coal, gas, hydropower or wind. 

In Australia, most of our electricity supply is generated from traditional fuels, such as coal and natural gas, with around 14 percent coming from renewable energy sources.1 

Regardless of the chosen fuel, most generators operate on the same proven principle: turn a turbine so that it spins magnets surrounded by copper wire, to get the flow of electrons across atoms, which in turn generates electricity.

Coal and gas work in similar ways; they are both burned to heat water, which creates steam and turns the turbine. 

Renewable energy sources such as hydropower and wind operate slightly differently, with either the water or the wind being used to turn the turbine, and generate the electricity.

Solar photovoltaic panels take a different approach again: they generate electrical power by converting solar radiation into electricity using semi-conductors.


Power stations convert fuels into electricity

coal gas burned illustration

Coal and gas are burned to heat water and turn it into steam.

csg pressure valve illustration

The steam, at a very high pressure, is then used to spin a turbine.

turbine magnet illustration

The spinning turbine causes large magnets to turn within copper wire coils - this is called the generator.

power button illustration

The moving magnets cause electrons in the wires to move from one place to another, creating an electrical current and producing electricity.


Electricity goes out on the grid

In Australia, we get our electricity via a sophisticated networked grid.

Electricity leaves generators and travels along conductor wires on the networked grid to homes and businesses across the country. By the time electricity reaches you, it’s likely to have travelled hundreds of kilometres through the grid.

Australia’s National Electricity Market or the NEM is the largest interconnected power system in the world.

If you’re interested in exploring electricity option for your home, you can compare Origin’s electricity plans and see an estimated cost for your usage.

Check your energy usage

  1. With analysis from Origin Energy, data includes all of Australia: the National Electricity Market (QLD, NSW, Vic, SA, TAS), plus Western Australia and the Northern Territory, but excludes Mt Isa. Embedded generation data sourced from State of energy market report 2014, Australian Energy Regulator, WA FY12 data from Greg Ruthven 2012, Statement of Opportunities Pre-Launch briefing, Independent Market Operator 2012 and NT FY13  data Energy Supply Association of Australia 2012, Electricity Gas Australia 2014.