Getting to know your electricity system
Energy is all around us in many forms, from the food we eat, to the shining sun and blowing wind, to the electricity coming from our sockets. How that energy is created and used, and in particular how it is converted into electricity, has an enormous but often poorly understood impact on our lives and our world.
Our Power wants to change that. Over the next few weeks, we will be breaking down the energy system in Ontario so that we can all be better informed about our energy choices individually and as a province. By the end of the series, you will better understand:
- What energy is and how it is turned into electricity;
- Climate policy in Ontario and Canada;
- The players in Ontario’s system and how electricity moves around the province;
- Energy pricing and what it means for your electricity bill;
- Community power and the role of citizens;
- Emerging energy innovations and why the future is about to look a whole lot different; and
- Ontario at a crossroads – and what individuals can to do to help make smart choices.
Today, we start from the beginning; with a focus on understanding what energy is and how it is converted into the electricity we need to live our modern lives.
What is energy, anyway?
Energy is a property of all objects in the universe. It can be thought of as the potential of a thing to do some kind of work – to push or pull, move or lift, etc. It can be stored, as in the case of food energy, or batteries, or hydro dams. It cannot be created nor destroyed, but it can be transferred from one form to another.
The origin of most energy on earth is the sun. Energy from the sun can be trapped as heat inside the earth as geothermal energy, or it can heat the surface of the earth in different places to generate air and water currents, or it can provide light that is converted to multiple forms of energy, including energy for plants to undergo photosynthesis. Animals then feed off plants to fuel themselves.
Fossil fuels, including oil, coal, and natural gas, also originate from the sun. These carbon energy sources found deep in the ground are fossilised plants that have decayed and transformed over millions of years. Fossil fuels are non-renewable energy sources because they are in finite supply.
Uranium is another common source of non-renewable energy, used in nuclear power production. Uranium is a naturally occurring element, and is mined from ore in the ground before being processed for use in nuclear fission, a chemical process that creates heat.
Energy sources that are not in limited supply and can be replenished over a human timescale are called renewable energy sources, and include solar, wind, geothermal, water, and bioenergy.
Here’s a cool video that sums this all up from TED Ed:
How energy becomes electricity
Now comes the truly innovative part – as we capture these sources of energy, we are able to convert that energy into electricity in order to power the necessities and luxuries of our lives. Electricity is the flow of moving electrons, created by an energy source and then converted into another form of energy at the end of the line (e.g. light energy to brighten our homes, or heat energy to warm them).
Power from the wind, bioenergy, nuclear, and fossil fuel for human use is generated through the same basic mechanism. A force, such as moving wind or water, or steam created from burning fuels, spins a turbine connected to a shaft and a generator. Within the generator, magnets interact with coils to generate electrons, which travel along a wire in the form of electricity.
The exception is solar energy. In the case of solar, photons (particles of light and electromagnetic radiation) from the sun are captured in solar panels and channelled into an electric current.
Check out this handy explanation of electricity generation in Ontario, produced by the Ministry of Energy:
The climate change connection
Electricity may be generated in a similar way across fuel types, but not all energy sources are created equal. For example, nuclear energy generates dangerous radioactive waste, for which we still have no long-term storage solution.
Burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas for electricity generation releases carbon emissions, which become trapped in the atmosphere and contribute to climate change. We have already seen extreme weather events, droughts, floods, and diseases that are linked to this climate destabilization, which makes the shift to a 100% renewable energy system a modern imperative.
David Suzuki explains it well in this video:
We hope you learned something about energy today, especially why we need to accelerate our transition to a renewable energy powered world.
Next time, we outline major policies affecting climate in Ontario and what you can do to get involved.