Watt Does It use

The go-to blog to save energy, save money, help the earth.

Category: Electricity Essentials

Millions of miles of wires span the US to transport our electricity.

Electricity 101: What Is a Watt? And Where Does My Electricity Come From?

What exactly is the deal with electricity? Where does my electricity come from? Maybe these questions hit you as you flip on a light at midnight to rummage through the kitchen for a snack. Or perhaps they occur to you as you crank the air conditioning on a hot summer day. Maybe they even come to you when your laptop is at 1% and you frantically reach for your charger to plug it into the wall. No matter when or how, we know you’ve thought of this. And there’s no shame in not fully understanding electricity—we get it!

If you’re wondering about the basics behind electricity, like what exactly is a watt? Or, where in the world does electricity come from? Or even, what’s the difference between a watt and a kilowatt, anyhow? We’ve got some shockingly good news. As people who can’t help but talk endlessly about watts, electricity, and voltage, we’re all charged up about sparking your interest in electricity. And we’ve got amp-le resources to keep you informed! (We’re so amped up that we’re not even sorry for the sheer number of electricity puns we threw in that last paragraph!)

Let’s Talk Watts: Your Introduction to Key Electricity Terms

The best way to really dive into the world of electricity is to cover the bases on all the basics. That means you’ll need to be familiar with a few key terms: watts, kilowatts (and kilowatt-hours), volts, and amps.

What is a Watt?

We’ll start with a concept vital to the electricity conversation: the watt.

What exactly is a watt? We’re so glad you asked.

The watt is defined as the SI unit of power, which are equivalent to one joule per second, corresponding to the power in an electric circuit in which the potential difference is one volt and the current one ampere.

Yeah, even we’re scratching our heads at that definition.

Instead, let’s think of watts like this: a watt is a measurement of the rate at which electricity is flowing. Similarly to how you measure miles per hour in your car. Think of watts as the MPH of the big bad world of electricity. The watts are the measurement that tell you just how fast the electrons are going. As an example, if a lightbulb is an 80-watt lightbulb, it’s going to consume electricity at a rate of 80 watts.

Watts vs Kilowatts: Which is Which?

At this point you might be wondering: if watts are the measurement of drawn electricity, why does your electricity bill show up with a measurement of kilowatt-hours (kWh)?

Here’s the deal—a watt is a measure of power, right? Well, the kilowatt is a measure of energy. Energy is—in all science textbooks everywhere—described as the ability to do work. So, think of energy as creating heat or lighting something up.

Remember that 80-watt lightbulb we talked about? If you run that 80-watt lightbulb for an hour, you’ve used a total of 80 watt-hours—or .08 kilowatt-hours (hint: 1 kilowatt is equal to 1,000 watts).

So—why does your electric bill show up like that? Simple. It’s just easier to measure large amounts of energy in kilowatts.

Wait—So Where do Volts and Amps come in?

Okay, we’ve got the watt, kilowatt, and kilowatt-hour questions sorted. That still leaves us with another big question: what’s a volt? We know, we know, there’s a lot to understand. We promise, it’s all going to come together. Stick with us!

A volt (or voltage) is defined as the way we measure electromotive force that causes a current of a single ampere to flow through a conductor. An ampere (commonly shortened to amp) is: the basic unit of electric current.

As with the watt, scratching our heads, but don’t give up! We’re going to simplify this too.

Remember how we said that a watt is like the mph that measures how fast your car is zooming down the “road” of wire? Let’s change that image up a bit. Now, let’s think about electricity as if it’s a steady stream of water (heck, it can be anything you want—coffee, wine, whatever makes this image more fun) flowing through a tube.

The amount of pressure that drives that water-wine-coffee-combo through the tube is voltage. And amps are the volume of water-wine-coffee flowing through that tube all the way to your glass. The watts—in this scenario—would be the total amount of energy/power that water-wine-coffee could provide you (the tube’s capacity).

Starting to make sense?

Crash Course in Electricity Production

All right—we’ve got the basics down. Watt, amp, voltage, check. Answering those questions has probably led to another, even bigger question: how exactly is electricity made? Or more specifically, where exactly does electricity come from in the U.S.?

Never fear, we’ve got you covered. Now that you’ve got the basics mastered, we can build on that foundation to understand how our electricity comes to be.

How Electricity is Made in the US

It’s no secret that electricity isn’t magic. But the entire process might seem so foreign and confusing that it might as well be something you read in a made-up fairytale. We’re here to change all that—let’s break it down.

There’s no one single way to produce electricity. In the US, we use predominantly fossil fuels to create electricity. Fortunately, we also use an increasing amount of alternative sources like wind, solar, and nuclear. Not all electricity is created equally. In fact, the type and amount of emissions produced by your electricity all goes back to how your electricity is generated. You can see how yours is generated here!

In the US in 2018, approximately 64 percent of electricity generation came from fossil fuels (like coal and petroleum), 19 percent came from nuclear energy, and 17 percent came from renewable energy resources.

The Logistical Process: How Electricity Gets to Your House

How exactly does electricity go from being made at a generation station (using coal, natural gas, water, or wind, as we discussed earlier) to powering your home when you flip on a light, plug in your phone, or turn on your AC.?

The US electrical grid has 200,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines and 5.5 million miles of local distribution lines.
The US electrical grid has 200,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines and 5.5 million miles of local distribution lines. Source: American Public Power Association

First thing first, electricity has to travel a long way to get from the generating stations to where your house is. It could be hundreds of miles away from where you’re flipping your light switch on! That’s part of what makes electricity so cool (we think, anyway).

 We’ll simplify this process by taking a look at a step-by-step:

  1. Electricity is made (we’ll save that story for another day)
  2. That electricity is sent as a current through a transformer. That transformer increases the voltage. (Side note: remember the pressure in our liquid-of-choice analogy). This enables it to travel a long distance without any trouble.
  3. The electrical charge will run through super high-voltage transmission lines (which stretch all across the US).
  4. Eventually, that current will reach a headquarters of sorts, called a substation. This substation cranks down the voltage significantly. That way, it can safely travel through the smaller power lines in your neighborhood.
  5. As it travels through those smaller power lines, little transformers (you’ve seen these in your city or neighborhood for sure) will reduce that voltage a few more times. This ensures that it’s safe enough to use inside your home.
  6. The current makes its way through those transformers and into your home. In the process, it passes through a meter that measures how much of it you use.
  7. From there, the electricity goes to a centralized location in your house—like a circuit breaker or a service panel. There, the electricity is “on call” for duty. It travels through the wires in your walls when you signal a demand for the power, either by flipping a switch or plugging something in.

See, it’s not all that complex! Did this post wet your appetite? Wanting to learn more about electricity? Then watt are you waiting for?! Let us know lingering questions in the comments. And sign up for updates from the WattDoesItUse blog to get even more electricity insights, tips on how to conserve energy, new product reviews, and advice on cost savings!

Is Wireless Charging Here to Stay?

There isn’t any question that wireless charging will soon become the new standard for charging electric devices. Most people can relate to that sinking feeling of a dying cell phone and missing the power cable. This is what makes wireless charging so disruptive–you get the convenience of consumer electronics without cords.

In addition, wireless charging means that managing devices can be easier and less wasteful. Furthermore, wireless power may make gadgets and even electric cars more durable, while possibly eliminating the need for batteries. According to IHS research, consumer awareness of wireless charging doubled to 76 percent in 2015—this is from a 36 percent consumer awareness in 2014. Pike Research anticipates that wireless power products will triple to a $15 billion market by 2020. Here, we take a look at the future of wireless power and conductive charging.

What is conductive charging anyway?

Conductive charging requires a physical connection between the charging station and the electric device needing the charge. Specific attachments are then designed to fit perfectly with the receiving device. A conductive charging base also has the ability to tell when a device has been placed on top of it. To illustrate, electric cars of the future may only need to drive atop a conductive charging mat to power the car for its next bout on the road–there isn’t a need to even step out of the car.Tesla snake charger

Tesla snake charger

As electric cars become more innovative, you can expect innovations in charging technology. In fact, Tesla has recently showcased their creepy, yet convenient, robot-snake charger. What makes it even more exciting is the robot-snake can find your car’s charging port and plug itself in. Once the robot finds the car’s charge port, it turns it green to indicate it’s working. This also means an eliminated risk of electrocution.

Tesla’s CEO and co-founder Elon Musk said that last year the company was working on a charger that looks like a “solid metal snake.” Musk also added that the snake-charger would work on all existing Tesla cars. Right now, they have the prototype ready. Although, the company said last Thursday that the market version may still end up looking a bit less scary.

Wireless charging and the future

Since Tesla’s snake-charger has already made its debut, many other manufacturers are racing to get their conductive charging systems out into the forefront. Many technology providers believe that wireless charging systems, for the electric vehicle market, will be available to consumers by 2017. As a result, The Society of Automotive Engineers plans to have its J-2954 standards finalized by 2017–with recommendations released by late 2016. These are all positive signs for the conductive charging industry as a whole.

Kevin Mak, Senior Analyst in the Automotive Electronics Service (AES) at Strategy Analytics said “While the selling point for wireless charging systems is undoubtedly beneficial to the promotion of plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles, they will firstly be offered as costly optional purchase limited to mainly luxury auto brands, when they launch in 2017. Other challenges include the speed of finalizing standards, since it is critical for wireless charging systems to be interoperable, in instances where the consumer buys a different brand of electric vehicle or when charging on public infrastructures.” Why carry a heavy battery around or a tangled power cable when you can use a conductive charging mat?

Although there are still some cost and standardization hurdles for conductive charging bases, the future looks bright with enduring mass appeal.

What devices would you like to charge wirelessly?

EnerGuide vs ENERGY STAR: why are the numbers different?

For WattDoesItUse visitors that live in Canada, you have an energy rating system called EnerGuide. This is a similar program to ENERGY STAR, which exists in the United States.

We’ve had a visitors reach out asking why the same model showed a higher annual kWh rate on EnerGuide; whereas, on ENERGY STAR it showed less.EnerGuide vs ENERGY STAR

The reason why is that EnerGuide uses a different estimate for usage than ENERGY STAR. For the specific example in question, the visitor was looking for the power consumption of a dryer. The dryer had an EnerGuide estimate of 416 loads/year; whereas, ENERGY STAR estimates annual usage at 283 loads. This is a significant difference and highlights one of the fundamental benefits of WattDoesItUse. We allow you to calculate your own usage, so that you don’t go off of estimates.

Try it for yourself. Find a device and estimate the daily, monthly, and annual power consumption.

The Future of Solar: high sodium solar thermal technology

While at the Solar Power Finance and Investment Summit, I got to sit down and chat with Hank Price, CTO from Abengoa Solar, about solar thermal. Solar Thermal Electric (STE) uses concentrated solar energy to generate high temperature thermal energy (1050°F) that can either be stored for later use or used to generate electricity in a conventional type power plant. A key aspect of solar thermal is storing the energy for when the sun isn’t shining or during peak hours when generation can’t meet the demand.

Abengoa Solar ThermalAbengoa leverages molten salt, also known as Solar Salt, which is a mix of sodium nitrate (40%) and potassium nitrate (60%). It has a very high melting point and retains heat well. This is used as their primary storage medium. Hank explained that this is a very efficient way to store energy, and it can be stored for multiple days. Abengoa focuses on large scale deployments in the form of power plants, like one down in Chile that is designed to operate at 100 MegaWatts, 24 hours per day.

While this application is a great technology for energy generation and storage, it isn’t as cost effective as photovoltaic (PV) solar panels, for residential deployments. This may change over time, but PV solar panels have a higher demand and production, which keeps the cost down.

As far as the future of solar goes, Hank stressed that we need to keep our focus on the bigger goal at hand, which is to reduce the Carbon output generated from Electricity Plants. Leveraging a technology, like Solar Thermal, will offer an alternative source of energy that has the ability to scale and meet demands even when the sun isn’t shining. Deploying STE requires about 3-5 years to finish a project that can be leveraged by utilities.

Industry Feedback: Solar Investment Tax Credit

I attended the Solar Power Finance and Investment Summit this past week. The most common theme of the summit was the ITC expiration.

What is ITC?

ITC stands for Investment Tax Credit. In this instance, it is a 30% tax credit for residential and commercial solar systems. The ITC started in 2006 and has been extended a couple of times, but is currently set to expire Dec 31, 2016. When it expires, the tax credit will drop to 10%.  Learn more about the ITC.

Why was it discussed at the Summit?

The ITC has helped facilitate a lot of growth within the solar industry, and many smaller solar installers depend on this credit to stay in business. The removal of this credit could cause a major loss of jobs and growth in the solar industry. Both are huge detriments to the economy and the planned deprecation of carbon output based energy creation (Coal).

What was the feedback from the Summit?

I sat in on many panels and talked individually with business owners, financiers, and lawyers about their thoughts on the expiration of the ITC. I got mixed feedback including the following:

  • The ITC will be extended, so there is nothing to worry about.
  • The ITC has made it easier for many companies to start solar, but not all are keeping the industry’s best interest in mind. The expiration of the ITC would act as a cleanse, and only the strong would survive.
  • The expiration of the ITC will require companies and their backers to come up with more creative financial models that are still profitable and enticing to their customers.
  • The expiration of the ITC can be leveraged as a carrot to close more business now. This will create a large backlog to address immediate business needs while a transition plan is figured out.

Current solutions for the possible expiration?

Companies aren’t waiting for the worst case scenario to happen. A good example of this is SolarCity’s recent MyPower financing that lets the consumer file for the ITC, but includes a balloon payment in the 2nd year, after solar install, which is equivalent to the ITC.

How does it impact you?

If you want to take advantage of the ITC, then now would be a good time to do so. There are a lot of factors to consider, which I’ll be adding in upcoming blog posts. In the interim, if you are considering installing solar and you want a Free and Unbiased opinion of the approach you should take, feel free to contact us, and we’ll provide insight for your specific situation.

Additional thoughts from the Summit

There was a lot of great information that I picked up at the Summit, which I’ll be adding in upcoming blog posts. The topics will range from residential solar to large power plant size deployments. Make sure you Follow or Like us to be alerted of new posts.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén