Ask the Superexpert about Electricity, Natural Gas, & Energy Efficiency

Have you ever wondered why shoes hanging on a power line don’t get fried? Or why natural gas flames are blue? Or whether garbage could someday be a source of energy? Now you can get answers to these and all your energy-related questions. Just Ask the Superexpert!

The Superexpert answers new questions regularly, so check back to see if YOUR question is up!

Since turning on a light is such a simple thing to do, I think you must be asking about the “work” of the electrical transmission and distribution system, which brings electricity from the power plant to the light bulbs in your home or school. This system does indeed involve a lot of work! To learn more about it, check out the Travels of Electricity section of our website.

These two questions are similar, so I will answer them together. Depending on your location and the type of solar system you install, a typical home installation costs between $18,000 and $40,000. The panels themselves are about a third of the cost, ranging from $4,500 to $12,000. Then there are installation fees on top of this. The costs of installing a solar power system are offset, however, by money saved on energy bills each month, so the longer you have a system in place, the more money you get back from your initial investment. Installing a solar power system can make good financial sense for high energy users. It depends on the electric rates in your area, and the size of the solar system installed, but households with very high energy use could recoup their investment within as few as five years. A household that uses a very modest amount of energy might never earn back the cost of the investment, however.

Technically, windmills do not create electricity, but wind turbines do. Windmills have been in use for about 1,200 years. They use the wind’s energy to do mechanical work, such as milling grain or pumping water. Wind turbines operate differently than windmills. Rather than using the wind’s energy for mechanical work, they use the power of the wind to spin a turbine generator and produce electricity. As the wind blows, it turns the blades of the turbine, which spins a magnet near a coil of copper wire. The spinning magnet causes the electrons in the coil of wire to move. This generates electricity, which is sent through power lines to where it is needed. You can read more about wind energy, and other forms of renewable energy, on this website.

Yes! An electric eel uses chemicals in its body to manufacture electricity. A large electric eel can produce a charge of up to 650 volts, which is more than five times the shocking power of a household outlet.

Photovoltaic cells (also called PV cells or solar cells) are very thin layers of silicon covered with special glass or plastic. When sunlight hits these cells, electrons are released. The electrons flow onto wires, forming direct current (DC), which is the same kind of current that flows from a battery. A four-inch silicon cell can produce about 1 watt of DC electricity.
If you’ve already read about solar energy on this site and want to explore further, visit the US Energy Information Administration’s site.

Since turning on a light is such a simple thing to do, I think you must be asking about the “work” of the electrical transmission and distribution system, which brings electricity from the power plant to the light bulbs in your home or school. This system does indeed involve a lot of work! To learn more about it, check out the Travels of Electricity section of our website.

Yes. In 1626, French explorers found Native Americans igniting gases that were seeping into and around Lake Erie.

Shoes hanging on a power line don’t get burned for the same reason that birds standing on a power line don’t get shocked: They don’t give electricity a path to the ground, so electricity stays in the line and does not go through them. But if the shoes were to touch a power line and a power pole at the same time, they would provide a path to the ground and would get blasted with electric current. It wouldn’t be pretty! By the way, if you ever see someone throwing shoes up onto a line, tell them to stop! The shoes can damage the power line, or someone trying to get the shoes down could be seriously shocked or even killed.

Although Americans make up only about 4 percent of the world’s population, we use about 17 percent of the world’s energy! And we consume about 12 times more energy per person than people in Mexico, and almost 7 times more energy than people in Canada.

The ancient Chinese were the first to discover underground deposits of natural gas. In 600 BC, Confucius wrote of wells 100 feet deep yielding water and natural gas along the Tibetan border. The Chinese piped the gas to where it was needed through long, hollow bamboo stalks.

A natural gas flame burns hotter than a campfire. In general, cooler flames appear yellow, orange, or red, while hotter flames look blue or white. (Flecks of orange in your gas flames are OK, but if the flame is yellow, large, and flickering, the appliance may need a safety adjustment by a qualified repair person.)

Natural gas is called “natural” because when this type of gas was first discovered, it could be used directly from the ground in its natural state, without any processing. Today, gas utilities process natural gas by removing water, sand, and other compounds so that when the gas is delivered to your home it will burn as cleanly and efficiently as possible. And in its natural state gas has no odor, so that’s why companies add a harmless but stinky chemical to it; the odor helps people smell a leak that otherwise, in the gas’s natural state, doesn’t smell.

Organic waste emits methane as it decomposes—or rots—in a landfill. Landfills can collect and treat the methane, and then sell it as a commercial fuel; or they can burn it to generate steam and electricity. Today, there are almost more than 915 gas energy landfill projects operating in the United States.

Technically, windmills do not create electricity, but wind turbines do. Windmills have been in use for about 1,200 years. They use the wind’s energy to do mechanical work, such as milling grain or pumping water. Wind turbines operate differently than windmills. Rather than using the wind’s energy for mechanical work, they use the power of the wind to spin a turbine generator and produce electricity. As the wind blows, it turns the blades of the turbine, which spins a magnet near a coil of copper wire. The spinning magnet causes the electrons in the coil of wire to move. This generates electricity, which is sent through power lines to where it is needed.

More homes in the U.S. are heated by natural gas than by electricity.

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