Electricity 101

Electricity is energy that comes from the charges and force between protons (positive charges) and electrons (negative charges). All matter is made from tiny particles called atoms, which contain negative charges and positive charges. When an atom has an unequal number of electrons and protons, an electric charge occurs. A flowing electric charge makes an electric current. You use this current every time you flip the light switch, listen to your radio, watch television, play a computer game or plug anything into a socket and turn it on.


Electricity is made, or generated, at power plants. Generation is the act or process of producing electricity from other forms of energy – such as steam, heat or falling water. The term also refers to the amount of electric energy produced. Generation facilities are the first link in the chain for providing electricity to customers. There are currently about 3,200 electric utilities throughout the United States, but only about 700 of them operate facilities that generate electric power. Once electricity is generated, it needs to be transported.


Electricity transmission is the process of carrying high voltages of electricity from generation facilities over long distances – it is the movement of electrical energy through wires.  Transmission lines and other facilities are necessary to move electricity from power plants to the thousands of distribution systems that serve consumers across the country. An extensive system of high-voltage transmission lines is operated by the nation’s larger utilities.

In the Northwest, most power is generated at sites dictated by the course of the Columbia River and its tributaries, and many of these sites are far from the region’s cities. Faced with the need to transmit power long distances, the Northwest pioneered the use of high-voltage transmission lines. The first long-distance transmission of electricity in the United States took place in Oregon in June 1889, when power from the Willamette Falls Electric Company dam at Oregon City was transmitted 14 miles to Portland.


Electricity distribution is the process of carrying electricity from transmission substations to homes and businesses. After electricity is generated, it is sent to customers over a high-voltage electric transmission line. The voltage is high so generators can send power over long distances. Before the electricity reaches homes and businesses, however, the voltage is reduced by transformers – first at a substation and then again much closer to where it will be used.

Public Power as opposed to Private Power:

    • Public power refers to not-for-profit electric utilities that are owned and operated by their consumers – including municipals, public and peoples utility districts, and cooperatives.
    • Private power (also known as investor-owned) utilities are for-profit corporations with facilities owned by shareholders and governed by private boards.