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The Familiar Forms of Electricity

Ever walked on a carpet and been "zapped" when you touch a metal object? That is an example of static electricity.  Static electricity is used to a lesser extent than current electricity in our every day lives. 

A more useful form of electricity is "current" electricity in which the electric current "flows" in one direction only - Direct Current (DC). The batteries in our torches, toys, portable radios and cars are the most common sources of DC low voltage, low power electricity. Higher voltage, higher power DC systems are used for particular applications, such as energy storage systems associated with renewable energy systems that are not connected to an electricity supply network. High voltage, high power DC power lines have been used successfully in special applications such as interconnections between transmission systems and undersea power cables. Large DC electric motors are common in certain applications, such as electric locomotives where high starting torque and variable speed are required.

The most useful type of "current" electricity is the type in which the direction of flow of the electrical current changes direction many times in each second - Alternating Current (AC). AC electricity powers the appliances in our homes, turns the electric motors of industry and energizes our electric lights.

The current in an AC system does not instantaneously change direction. Rather, it gradually (in relative terms) increases in magnitude until it reaches a maximum in one direction, then gradually reduces to zero, gradually increases to a maximum in the other direction, then reduces to zero - and the whole cycle starts all over again. The number of complete cycles carried out in a second is called the frequency of the AC electricity supply. In Australia, the AC frequency is 50 cycles per second, with 60 cycles per second used in North America.

If DC and AC electricity can both be used successfully, why is AC the dominant form of current electricity?

The answers lie in the consideration of:

  • economics - in general, AC electrical equipment is smaller and cheaper to manufacture than DC equipment of similar duty;
  • voltage changes - changes in voltages can be easily facilitated within an AC system, but voltage changes in DC systems are complicated and require significant equipment. This ability to change voltage is particularly important in transmission and distribution systems where line losses are reduced if the voltage is increased. The voltages used in a large electrical supply system and the importance of having various voltages in the system are discussed in the Transmission and Distribution section.

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Last modified: April 17, 2010