Using electricity

Electricity is supplied to consumers through the National Grid at a very high voltage to reduce energy losses during transmission. Transformers are used to increase or decrease the voltage of the supply. Electricity is charged in units. One unit is equivalent to one kilowatt of electricity used for one hour.

The National Grid

At the power station

Power stations are built in order to generate electricity. The diagram shows the main steps involved.

The national grid

Power station

There are four main stages:

  1. the fuel is burned to boil water to make steam
  2. the steam makes a turbine spin
  3. the spinning turbine turns a generator which produces electricity
  4. the electricity goes to the transformers to produce the correct voltage

The energy needed to boil the water comes from fossil fuels or nuclear fuels. Renewable energy resources such as wind and wave power may drive the generators directly.


A transformer is an electrical device that changes the voltage of an alternating current (ac) supply, such as the mains electrical supply. A transformer changes a high-voltage supply into a low-voltage one, or vice versa.

  • A transformer that increases the voltage is called a step-up transformer.
  • A transformer that decreases the voltage is called a step-down transformer.

The National Grid

Electricity is transferred from power stations to consumers through the wires and cables of the National Grid. When a current flows through a wire some energy is lost as heat. The higher the current, the more heat is lost. To reduce these losses, the National Grid transmits electricity at a low current. This needs a high voltage.

Power stations produce electricity at 25,000V. Electricity is sent through the National Grid cables at 400,000V, 275,000V and 132,000V.

Step-up transformers are used at power stations to produce the very high voltages needed to transmit electricity through the National Grid power lines. These high voltages are too dangerous to use in the home, so step-down transformers are used locally to reduce the voltage to safe levels. The voltage of household electricity is about 230V.

The cost of using electricity

You should be able to calculate the cost of using an electrical appliance when given enough information about it.

The unit

The amount of electrical energyelectrical energy: Energy transferred by electricity. transferred to an appliance depends on its power and the length of time it is switched on. The amount of mains electrical energy transferred is measured in kilowatt-hours, kWh. One unit is 1kWh.

The equation below shows the relationship between energy transferred, power and time:

energy transferred (kWh) = power (kW) × time (h)

Note that power is measured in kilowatts here instead of the more usual watts. To convert from W to kW you must divide by 1000.

For example, 2000W = 2000 ÷ 1000 = 2kW.

Also note that time is measured in hours here, instead of the more usual seconds. To convert from seconds to hours you must divide by 3600.

For example, 1800s = 1800 ÷ 3600 = 0.5 hours.

The cost

Electricity meters measure the number of units of electricity used in a home or other building. The more units used, the greater the cost. The cost of the electricity used is calculated using this equation:

total cost = number of units × cost per unit

For example, if 5 units of electricity are used at a cost of 8p per unit, the total cost will be 5 × 8 = 40p.

Check your understanding of working out the cost of electricity by having a go at this activity.

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