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The grid is the vast, interconnected network of power plants, power lines, transformers, and other scary, high voltage things that virtually every building in America is connected to. The grid is a vast, tangled web, and pretty much every strand, node and hub is owned by someone different. It’s complicated, but in a sense, the mechanism goes a little something like this:

  1. A power plant, makes electricity, usually by spinning a turbine. Depending on the type of power plant, the turbine could be powered by wind, running water, or steam from a coal, gas, nuclear, or heliostat plant. When the turbine spins, an electromagnetic phenomenon (which is just a fancy way of saying “rubbing two magnets together”) occurs, and electrons are forced outward down a wire.
  2. The voltage (Think of it as pressure. Sort of.) is increased using a transformer, because higher voltage energy moves more efficiently over great distances.
  3. The energy moves over the aforementioned great distances. It does this really fast, and it moves basically wherever it’s needed. Technically, an electron generated in New Hampshire could be used to spin a ceiling fan in Florida, though there are power plants in Florida as well.
  4. Since really high voltage is dangerous to have in your house, a transformer nearby reduces the voltage before sending the current through your meter.
  5. The power reaches your panel, where it is distributed throughout your house. It only moves when you turn on a light, an appliance, or an electronic device.
  6. After doing its work, it then flows back out pretty much the same way it came in (electrical cables always have a positive and negative wire in them).

Remember how we mentioned earlier that someone different owns different parts of the grid? Just as your utility checks your meter every now and then to find out how much electricity you’ve used (and how much money you owe), the entity your utility buys the power from does the same thing, and so on. Billions of dollars change hands entirely behind the scenes, and a single electron (though its value is too small to calculate) could be bought and sold hundreds of times between the power plant and your house.

If you have a solar system on your house, you create your own energy and use it locally. Most solar systems are still connected to the grid and the electrons flow freely back and forth, but you become a mini power plant as well as a user, so your meter often runs backward, reducing your bill and saving you money.