How Electricity Generation Really Works

Continuing the series on the power grid by diving deeper into the engineering of large-scale electricity generation.
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The importance of electricity in our modern world can hardly be overstated. What was a luxury a hundred years ago is now a critical component to the safety, prosperity, and well-being of nearly everyone. Generation is the first step electricity takes on its journey through the power grid, the gigantic machine that delivers energy to millions of people day in and day out. So how does it work?


Writing/Editing/Production: Grady Hillhouse

This video is sponsored by Hello Fresh.


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48 thoughts on “How Electricity Generation Really Works

  • Practical Engineering

    There’s a lot more to the discussion here, so let me know into which topics you’d like to go deeper in future videos. Thanks for watching!

  • Bjorn Canute

    I hate the term renewable energy as it excludes nuclear energy from the start. Using conventional fuel sources nuclear can power us for centuries and with unconventional fuels like thorium or plutonium in fast spectrum reactors can powers us for thousands of years, and yet the fact that this nuclear fuel is not renewed by the big nuclear fuel in the sky somehow makes it undesirable,

  • Chris Metcalf

    //It would be nice if you would keep your global warming politics out of the videos.//

    Anthropogenic climate change is a scientific theory. Much like the branches of physics that go into electricity generation.
    There's nothing political about it.

  • JackWebb128

    I expect someone who uses engineering in their title to be part of the minority that knows the truth that C02 has a negligible affect on global warming. Carbon dioxide comprises 0.038% of the earth’s atmosphere, and of that amount, a mere 3% is generated by mankind. Human produced CO2 might account for a bit more than 0.1% of greenhouse effect. Without greenhouse gasses such as water vapor (95%), the earth would be void of life. Of that 5% that is not water vapor, CO2 only accounts for a bit over 2% of that 5% (0.116%). The amount CO2 has increased (about 35%) over the past 100 years is within historical norms for the non-industrialized past. CO2 levels are believed to have been much higher a few hundred years ago. Most factors that actually change the climate are far out of our control and much more dramatic than we could counter one way or the other. Historically CO2 levels tend to trail warming so they seem like more of an effect rather than a cause of warming though this gets complicated as each can seemingly cause each other. I for one would like more CO2 so that plants can better absorb the higher CO2 concentrations in arid parts of the world without losing their moisture.

  • Anonym

    I think you should not state that electricity moves near the speed light since it can cause some terminological confusion. See why over here:

  • Austin Glines

    Human beings breathe in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide plants intake carbon dioxide and create oxygen global warming is just some rich prick elitist way to tax everybody for the air that they breathe it is a psyop

  • Tyler Mason

    Love the video, but there's one correction that I just have to mention. At 1:10, you state that electricity moves at nearly the speed of light and that electrons in your home were at the power plant milliseconds ago. While you do see the voltage produced by the plant, the actual electrons traveling through your wires move very slowly (look into electron drift velocity). The propagation of the signals in your wires will be near the speed of light, but the electrons themselves move very slowly (on the order of 10^-4 m/s). To see how fast waves can propagate through a wire, you want to find its relative permeability and permittivity. Look into velocity factor for more information.

  • Joe Blow

    Great video, except for the misunderstanding about "global warming". Don't you think if coal burning emissions were causing the earth to heat up at an alarming rate – which..they're…not…. we'd have been barbequed after the industrial revolution? We all know the climate does change – and I'm sure humans have some impact on that, but coal and natural gas are not quite the demons they're made out to be. Solar arrays have been tried and really aren't sustainable, let alone reliable (manufacturing pollution and the solar 1 disasters?). Wind energy is another example of too little for the effort. (Do the research) Between that and tearing out the hydro-electric dams, where is the juice supposed to come from? Technology has come far enough that nuclear plants are surely a safe and viable option, but those were demonized long ago. The media and politicians have brainwashed the public for corporate interest for so long….. Somebody, somewhere has to remember economics at some point.

  • Bruce Evans

    Inertia? I have a BSEE and I have been studying electricity for about 60 years and I have never heard of electrical "inertia." I understand what you are getting at though it is a very mechanical notion of the concept.

  • ShawarmaLifeLiving

    While the electric field does travel at the speed of light, the electrons that flow through your wires were not just at the generator facility, they move at a much much slower rate.

  • Matthew Caylor

    A thing I would be interested in learning about. How distributed generation works. We are having solar power panels installed on our hour this week. During the day any excess power we generate is sold to our power supplier. I am kinda curious how that power gets transmitted and to whom.

  • feelthefears


  • Matthew Maio

    You say global warming what do you call the change in season's? Why in your presentation you did not refer to past and current data? Listening to many other people who do the same as you I would say that your purpose was to push a green revolution

  • R. Charles Allsopp

    Alot of software performs the synchroscope RYB (Red Yellow Blue) phase alignment, but they do still exist between diesel generators on ships and submarines (where PARALLELING is naturally required). Important on bringing e.g. the "coming-on" generator into circuit, and shutting down the – well you guessed it – the "going-off" generator. Realistically, the generators have names. Grady fantastic stuff just before I go to sleep before my night shift. Especially the "spinning standby" bit.

  • Shawana Washington

    Grady: as smart as you are, you have been sucked into the climate change/global warming fraud. You state with such certainty that CO2 rise causes temperature rise. Many of your fellow engineers/scientists strongly disagree with that "theory".

  • Shawana Washington

    Pie chart at 1:52 – surprised to see that coal produces 40% of our world wide electricity. I know China (and other 3rd world countries) relies heavily on coal which may account for most of this. This offsets all the so-called renewable energy in the U.S. . . . by a long shot.

  • Steve Avant

    Did I understand you to say the spinning generator gives the current the inertia to travel down the wires? Is the flow of current not caused by positive and negative attracting each other? There’s no inertia in a battery but current still flows when a load is connected.

  • bill timmons

    Three phase power transmit 73% (sqrt 3) more power than single phase – not three times more power. For those who are going into power engineering get real good at trig and vector mathematics. Even though power engineering is not as glamorous as IT, or other tech endeavors, our global infrastructure really needs young talent in power engineering. It's stable and rewarding profession. The sight of a power plant, the hum of a mega transformer, or the smell of ionized air can really be sobering! Sometimes our populous takes power for granted, until they lose it. Just give it some thought before you get into college. All due respect to the other engineering professions!

  • Chris Tyler

    Grady, I love your videos. They are really great for helping me understand what is going on with the world around me. Can you do a practical illustration as to why large ships passing through a channel will cause the water to recede from the shore? I'm assuming it is like a trough in a wave, but watching it happen it just doesn't look like that.

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