Learn to Explain the Basics of the Power Grid

If someone asked you to explain how electricity gets from the power plant to your home, would you be able to answer?  Don’t worry.  Very few people actually understand the logistics of this modern-day luxury, but with a quick scan of the basics, you’ll be able to impress your four-year-old by the time she wakes up from her nap.

Let’s take a gander!


Image courtesy of howstuffworks

Image courtesy of howstuffworks

Electricity generation is the process of producing electric power from other types of energy (but you already knew that.)  This typically takes place at a power plant where a generator converts potential energy into mechanical power, and then into electrical power.  This process is primarily propelled by heat engines that are powered by chemical combustion, nuclear fission, or kinetic energy.

Many power plants across the country burn fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas to produce electricity.  Fossil fuels are very popular because of their low cost, but as we transition away from these precious resources, more options become available.

Some plants may also use nuclear power to generate electricity, but this method is relatively expensive and may be hazardous to human health and the environment.  To avoid burning through our supply of fossil fuels and possibly inflicting damage to the surrounding area, the hot new trend is clean energy.  Wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, and hydroelectric power are all forms of renewable energy that will keep our planet clean and functioning properly.


Once electricity is generated, it’s sent to substations through a series of transmission lines that connect to make up the power grid.  Since there is no efficient way to store large amounts of energy, transmissions systems are designed to immediately transport electricity from the generator to the end user.

Transformers are used to alter the current between high transmission voltages and low distribution voltages.  They help ease the transportation process by increasing the voltage so it can be transmitted long distances at several hundred kilovolts (kV), and then dropping the voltage to so it can be used by homes and offices.


The final step in the delivery process is distribution. This requires several components such as medium-voltage power lines, pole-mounted transformers, substations, low-voltage wiring, and meters.  The power substation is used to decrease the voltage and send the power off in multiple directions.  Once the electricity finally reaches your house, a transformer drum reduces the power to 240 volts, which is a safe amount to use for typical household appliances.

The electricity market has typically been publicly owned, but starting in the 1970s, deregulation began to take place, which lead to competitive electricity markets.  The goal was to eliminate the monopoly, and as a result, electricity became a commodity.  In deregulated states, customers are able to shop around for a supplier that best fits their needs and budgets.

The structure of the electric grid is actually quite simple as long as you remember the three main steps: generation, transmission, and distribution.  Think you’re ready to impress your friends?

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  • http://blog.kwiqly.com James

    Nice simple article

    Minor correction

    “This process is primarily propelled by heat engines that are powered by chemical combustion, nuclear fission, or kinetic energy.”

    The kinetic energy of hydro-electric does not involve heat engines. so I would write

    “or by the conversion of in hydro-electrical from the potential held back by water dams

  • Sarah Battaglia

    Thanks for your input, James!