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It powers your body and even a car: Everything you need to know about electricity

See lightning fill the skies over SLO, Santa Barbara counties

Lightning, thunder and hail hit the Central Coast on Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017. Here's video of the storms and lightning from Orcutt, SLO and Nipomo.
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Lightning, thunder and hail hit the Central Coast on Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017. Here's video of the storms and lightning from Orcutt, SLO and Nipomo.

Electricity is often considered a mysterious force; like gravity, you can’t see it, but you can indeed observe its effects on physical objects such as lightning or experience it by rubbing your shoes across a wool carpet on a dry day and then touching a doorknob.

The shock you feel is the electricity discharged to the doorknob.

Without electricity, none of us would be here. So, what is electricity? It is the movement of electrons.

Everything in our universe, including all of us, is made of atoms. Hydrogen, the most abundant substance in the universe, is composed of a single proton and a single electron, which means it’s doesn’t conduct electricity very well in its gas phase (room temperature). On the other hand, metals like copper (Cu), silver (Ag) and gold (Ag) have an abundance of protons, neutrons and, most importantly, plenty of electrons in the outer shells (valence orbits) that can be easily pushed from one atom to another to produce electricity.

We measure electricity by voltage (the amount of potential or pressure) and current (the number of electrons that flow). Using the water-hose analogy, voltage is how hard the water is being pushed through the hose, while current is the amount of water that passes through the hose.

Another electrical term most of us may have heard of, but may not have a clear understanding of, is the unit of power called a watt; for electric power calculation, we multiply voltage and current to get watts. For a direct current circuit, a 12-volt light bulb that draws 2 amps of current would consume 24 watts of power.

For me, watts represent the work that electricity can do.

Electricity can be found everywhere. Electricity is required for our nervous system to send signals throughout our body to and from our brain. The average neuron cell contains a resting voltage of approximately 0.07 volts, which allows our synapses to fire.

Most integrated circuit chips, found in electronic devices, like personal computers or cameras, are designed to operate at 3.3 or 5.0 volts. The majority of our vehicles have 12-volt systems.

Most of our home’s electrical outlets are 120 volts, but some of our homes have 240-volt outlets in our garage for electric-car chargers. The electrical distribution lines on the power poles in our neighborhoods are mostly 12,000 volts. The voltage is stepped down by transformers on the power poles before entering our homes.

Each generator at Diablo Canyon Power Plant (Unit One and Unit Two) produce 25,000 volts at 46,000 amps of current for approximately 1,150,000,000 watts of power. To be very technical, since each generator has three phases of alternating current, each phase is about 26,500 amps multiplied by the square root of three to get watts.

A lightning discharge is incredibly powerful — up to 30 million volts at 100,000 amps (current) — but only for a short duration. Just one bolt is more than six times hotter than the surface of the sun. The sudden and rapid increase in heat causes the air around the lightning bolt to rapidly expand, then collapse, creating the shock waves we call thunder.

Ben Franklin, whom I considered to be our country's first meteorologist, discovered that lightning was electricity while flying a kite during a thunderstorm. He also invented a device called the lightning rod to channel lightning safely to the ground and away from a building’s structure.

On April 21, a two Santa Barbara County sheriff's deputies were trapped by power lines near Lompoc when a driver they were in pursuit of hit a power pole. They did the right thing by remaining in their vehicle until PG&E crews could de-energize the distribution lines.

If your vehicle comes in contact with a downed power line, follow these safety rules:

• Stay inside your car. The ground around you may be energized.

• Sound the horn, roll down your window and call for help.

• Warn others to stay away. Anyone who touches the equipment or ground around your car can be injured.

• Use your mobile phone to call 911.

• Wait until the fire department, police or PG&E workers tell you it’s safe to get out of your car before exiting the vehicle.

If your car is in contact with a fallen power line and a fire starts, follow these guidelines when exiting your vehicle:

• Remove loose items of clothing.

• Keep your hands at your sides and jump clear of the vehicle, so you are not touching the car when your feet hit the ground.

• Keep both feet close together and shuffle away from the vehicle without picking up your feet.

John Lindsey’s column is special to The Tribune. He is PG&E’s Diablo Canyon marine meteorologist and a media relations representative. Email him at pgeweather@pge.com or follow him on Twitter: @PGE_John.

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