The busyness of the modern world often times leads us to take for granted many of the things that make our daily lives what they are. Take electricity for example. Usually the most important thing about electricity comes down to flipping the switch and knowing the appliance or light is going to work immediately. Beyond that, there is not much else to say about it.
However, have you ever considered where electricity comes from, how it is generated, and how much it costs to provide the UK with electrical service we have? Have you ever wondered what life would be like without such reliable service? Electricity is indeed a good thing but there is more to it than simply plugging something in and turning on a switch.
Electricity is not a tangible substance in the same way water or soil is. Rather, it is best described as an interaction at the atomic level that results in certain characteristics we are able to harness for our own purposes. Think of it in terms of a group of schoolboys playing football.
In and of itself football is not a tangible substance; it is the result of those boys kicking a ball around the school yard. What might start out as two or three just having a little fun with the football can quickly coalesce into a group of 10 or 15 playing an organised game complete with rules and a score.
Electricity works the exact same way. At the atomic level protons, neutrons, and electrons all interact in various ways. When they are encouraged to act in a specific way that causes them to coalesce an electrical charge is created. That charge can then be used to power a light bulb, start a car, and so on.
The knowledge of electricity dates back to ancient Egypt and the electric fish found in the Nile River. Nevertheless, it wasn't until the 17th century and the work of English scientist William Gilbert that humanity began looking at ways to harness electricity. In the 18th century, American philosopher and scientist Benjamin Franklin discovered that lightning was electrical in nature and postulated it was possible to harness and store it for future use.
Based on the theories of these two men and dozens of their colleagues, we now have access to the electrical grid of today. The areas of electrical engineering and power generation continue to expand along with our knowledge base.
How Electricity Is Generated
The question of how electricity is generated is probably one of the more important topics to the average UK consumer. Methods of generation determine how much power is available to us, what we pay for it, and how the environment is impacted as compared to other energy sources.
According to Hi Energy, there are four primary fuels used to generate electricity in the UK:
- Natural Gas - Approximately 46% of all electricity used in the UK in 2008 was generated by burning natural gas. The natural gas is used to power generators that convert the energy from combustion into electricity. Gas is also the primary source of heat generation for UK residents.
- Coal - Although coal used to be the UK's primary source of heat and electrical generation, that is no longer the case. It accounts for about 31% of electrical power using the same principle as natural gas power generation. Coal-fired furnaces provide power for turbines that convert that energy into electricity.
- Nuclear - Perhaps the most controversial power generation method used in the UK is nuclear. Currently less than 14% of the nation's power needs are met through nuclear generators; most of those generators are eventually scheduled to close due to safety concerns. It should be noted that nuclear accidents are rare while the technology itself is extremely efficient and cost-effective.
- Renewable Sources - It may be that the push for renewable electricity is at the forefront of national energy policy, but the reality is that renewables only contribute about 5.5% of our electrical needs. The big problem with renewables right now lies in their inefficiency. If we are to change that, we must find new ways to harness renewable sources and create a higher output at the same time.
Regardless of the fuel source used, the principal of electrical generation is the same. Keeping in mind that electricity is not a tangible substance but a subatomic reaction, the fuel is used to create that action with the use of generators. In essence, it all works the same: something drives a generator or turbine, which creates electrical reaction and the subsequent charge.
Sending Electricity to Your Home
Sending electricity from a power plant to an individual home is not a complicated process but it does require a lot of equipment. Between the plant and the home, there are electrical lines, transformers, and utility poles. In simple terms, here is how it works:
- Electricity is generated at the plant and sent out over high-capacity power lines.
- The first destination is a transformer that increases the voltage in order to help the electricity travel both further and faster.
- When the electrical current reaches a neighbourhood, it passes through another transformer, which reduces the voltage so it does not harm residential electrical systems.
- From that transformer, the current flows down the lines and into individual homes.
The system of electrical cables and transformers makes up what is known as the national grid. The grid is managed in such a way as to make sure our needs and loads are balanced across the entire system at any given time. This ensures that you have electricity available when you need it. Managing the grid properly also prevents most large-scale outages and localized brownouts.
Electricity at the Consumer Level
At the consumer level, electricity comes down to two things: the electric meter that measures usage and the electrical system within a house that makes it usable for daily needs. Where the meter is concerned, it is tied into the specific energy provider an individual uses.
There are several different types of electric meters including smart meters, dialled meters, and prepayment meters. Regardless of the type of meter you have, the one thing constant among them all is the fact that the meter is put in place as a means of measuring electrical consumption. In other words, each of us pays only for the electricity we use.
According to the Electricity Guide, there are more than 18 power companies in the UK, most of which offer both gas and electrical service. With so many competing providers, it goes without saying that prices differ. Competition for a limited customer base is fierce at times.
For the consumer this competition is good. It means more options, lower prices, and better customer service in most cases. However, in order to get the best service possible consumers do need to shop around. You can do this in a couple of ways:
- using a comparison website that looks at prices across the entire industry
- reading independent reviews from consumers and professional organisations
- utilising media outlets like the Guardian and the Telegraph
- contacting individual energy suppliers directly
- asking friends, family, and colleagues about their experiences
Did you know you have the legal right to switch to a new energy provider if you desire? Not only that, it is not as hard as you might think. The process starts by shopping around and comparing prices -- including tariffs. If you find a company you like better than your current energy supplier, you can switch simply by contacting both. The only catch here comes by way of the meter you currently use.
Not every energy company uses the same types of meters. If your new provider can use the meter currently in place then witching can be done in a matter of days without any hassle. But if they do not support your current meter, a new one will have to be installed. In some cases, you may even have to pay for that installation.
Paying for Your Electricity
Most UK households pay for their electricity on a contract basis. In other words, you send your meter readings to the power company, a bill is generated based on what you have used, and you pay that bill through either direct debit, cheque, or other means when it comes due.
Some households utilise a prepayment meter instead of a contract meter. With this type of meter, the occupant of the home pays for his or her electricity before they use it; much like a subscriber of a prepaid mobile phone buys airtime in advance. The prepayment meter is typically reserved for power company customers who find themselves in arrears.
Contract meter customers can get reduced rates for electricity by taking advantage of feed-in tariffs. These tariffs provide two options for reducing the cost of electricity by generating your own electricity right on your property. The tariff results in a lower price overall as well as the ability to sell excess power back to your energy supplier.
Life without Electricity
Before we finish this up, we would like to challenge you to consider, just for a moment, what life might be like without reliable electrical service. Imagine having to conduct your evening activities by candlelight or oil lamp. Perhaps you would have to cook with gas or a wood stove; heat might be generated through the same means. But let's go one step further.
Without electricity, there would be no way to use mobile phones, laptop computers, game consoles, and all the other electronic devices we use today. They all rely on consistent and accessible electrical generation. May we suggest that without the power system we now have in place, life in the UK would be drastically different? It certainly would be.
Now that you have a good overview of how electricity works, it is time to consider whether you are getting the best deal for your electrical service. Take a few minutes to compare prices against your current service. If you can find a better deal, by all means consider switching as soon as you can. If you are already getting the best deal from your current supplier then there is no need to do anything further.
Electrical generation and consumption is a fascinating topic with so much to learn. If you would like more information about how it all works, there is plenty available online. The following links will take you to some organisations you are sure to find helpful:
National Grid - This is the website of the entity that manages the UK's national grid system. There is so much information here that it is almost impossible to quantify. Plan to spend some time over multiple visits.
Energy UK - Following this link takes you to the main page of Energy UK, a national trade association for the energy supply industry. Here you will learn about energy generation, delivery, consumption, and more. This is another very good site for those who really want to understand how the UK is powered.
GOV.UK - In any group, there are those who love facts, figures, and statistics. If that's you, this link is perfect. It gives you access to all sorts of statistical data regarding power generation and consumption in the UK.
Perhaps you are more interested in how much you pay for electricity rather than all of the technical things that go into it. If so, shopping around is the key for you. Below are links to multiple comparison websites that will enable you to shop for electrical prices quickly and efficiently.
Go Compare - On this site you can search for competitive electric rates from among most of the UK's top energy suppliers. If you prefer, you can also search for gas rates or combine both electric and gas into a dual fuel package.
Money Supermarket - This site also allows you to compare electric only, gas only, or combined service. Yet they also provide plenty of information by way of helpful guides and current news.
Confused.com - Get your online quote for electrical prices on this site just a matter of moments. Alternatively, take advantage of the option to check rates for dual fuel prices from companies like British Gas and E.ON.
Compare the Market - The designers of this site want to make searching for electric rates as easy as possible. Just provide your postcode, your current tariff, and how much you currently pay for electricity, and they will search across the industry to find you a better deal.
Tesco Compare - Price quotes from Tesco Compare are provided through a partnership between this site and the Energy Shop. They claim you can save as much as £277 by using this site. Clubcard members are eligible to earn 250 bonus points.
uSwitch.com - When you compare on this site you have instant access to general pricing in an easy-to-read grid. For more specific pricing simply enter your postcode and address, and click the button. If you would like to speak to representative in person, the site lists a free number you can call.
Money.co.uk - This site compares more than 20 electric service options from providers like British Gas and First Utility. The grid displays things like discounts, online billing options, guaranteed price promises, and average savings.
Totally Money - NPower, EDF, and Scottish Power are just three of the companies compared here. The process is fast and simple, only requiring you to enter your postcode to get started.
Money Saving Expert - If you are looking for practical advice on how to find the cheapest electricity possible this site is for you. Their easy-to-read guides lay it all out in plain English.