Facts on Energy


Have you ever wondered why shoes hanging on a power line don’t get fried? Or why natural gas flames are blue? Or whether garbage could someday be a source of energy? Now you can get answers to these and all your energy-related questions.

We post new questions and answers regularly, so check back!

Click on a question below to see the answer:


NEW! What could happen to you if you get an electric shock?

Answer: Electric shock can cause muscle spasms, a rapid pulse, severe burns, weakness, shallow breathing, unconsciousness, or even death.

NEW! How often does lightning actually occur?

Answer: Around the globe, lightning strikes about 6,000 times every minute.

NEW! How can birds sit on power lines and not get shocked?

Answer: Birds can sit on power lines and not get electric shocks because the electricity is always looking for a way to get to the ground. The birds are not touching the ground or anything in contact with the ground, so the electricity will stay in the power line. But if a bird with large wings touches a power line and a tree or power pole at the same time, it gives electricity a path to the ground, and could be shocked. And if a bird touches two wires at once, it will create a circuit—electricity will flow through the bird and likely electrocute it.

Why does natural gas smell like rotten eggs?

Answer: In its natural state, natural gas has no odor. Utility companies add a chemical odorant called "mercaptan" to natural gas to help make gas leaks easier to notice. If you have a natural gas stove, you may have smelled this rotten egg odor when the pilot light has gone out.

Why didn't Ben Franklin get killed when he tied a metal key to a kite string and flew the kite in a thunderstorm?

Answer: Ben Franklin's famous key did give off an electric spark. But lucky for Franklin, the kite was just drawing small electrical charges from the air. If the kite had been struck by lightning, Franklin would have been killed!

Energy Science

I have heard that landfills can be a source of energy. How does that work?

Answer: Just like manure, other types of organic waste emit methane as they decompose—or rot—in the landfill. Landfills can collect and treat the methane and then sell it as a commercial fuel, or they can burn it to generate steam and electricity. Today, there are almost 400 gas energy landfill projects operating in the United States.

Can you see electricity flowing in power lines or electrical wires?

Answer: You can't see electricity when it is flowing through a circuit. But if electricity leaves the circuit, as it does when someone is shocked, you can see a spark. The spark isn't electricity itself. It is a flame that occurs when the electricity travels through the air and burns up oxygen particles.

What is the difference between stored energy and energy in motion?

Answer: Stored energy (also called "potential energy") is the energy in matter due to its position or the arrangement of its parts. For example, a coconut hanging on a palm tree has stored energy because of its position suspended in the air. When the coconut drops from the tree and falls to the ground, its potential energy is converted into energy in motion (also called "kinetic energy"). Another example that illustrates the difference between these two types of energy is a twisted-up rubber band used to fly a toy airplane. The rubber band contains potential energy that is converted into kinetic energy when it untwists and turns the propeller.

Can natural gas appliances still run when the power goes out?

Answer: Older appliances may not require electricity to operate because they have a pilot light that burns continuously to ignite the gas. However, many newer appliances such as furnaces, water heaters, stoves and clothes dryers have electronic ignitions and electricity is needed to create a spark to ignite the natural gas.  In addition, some appliances, such as a furnace have electric blower fans that require electricity to circulate the warm air throughout the home. 

Does everything use energy?

Answer: Well, yes and no. Yes, because you need energy to make anything happen—it’s what makes anything and everything move, change, and/or grow. Everything that happens does so because of energy, and all living things use energy. But everything in the world does not use energy. For example, a rock on the ground and a car parked in a driveway do not use energy while they are sitting still. However, if you want to move the rock, or drive the car, you need to use energy to do that.

Energy Efficiency

NEW! Why do I need to unplug my cell phone charger?

Answer: Cell phone chargers are known as “energy vampires,” because they draw a lot of energy by being plugged in when phones are already charged or not even connected to them. In fact, only 5% of the power drawn by a cell phone charger is used to charge the phone. The other 95% is wasted when it is left plugged into the wall! To stop this energy waste, get yourself (and your family) in the habit of unplugging all chargers-including iPod chargers-when not in use.

Why do people say you should unplug appliances and chargers when not in use?

Answer: TVs, DVD players, computers, kitchen appliances, and chargers all can draw power even when off. You can stop these “phantom energy users” by unplugging them between uses. To make it easier, plug them into a surge protector and shut it off when idle for longer periods.

I’ve heard that planting trees can save energy. Why is that?

Answer: Trees planted on the south and west sides of your home will keep your house cooler in the summer because the shade they provide screens the sun’s rays from hitting your house and heating it up. This means you won’t have to make your air conditioning work quite so hard, thus saving energy.

How does a faucet leak waste energy?

Answer: If a faucet leaks hot or warm water, it not only wastes water, it wastes the energy that goes into heating it.

How much energy can be saved a year in your house if you turn out the lights every time you leave a room?

Answer: This is a hard question to answer without knowing the details of your situation, but here is one example. Let’s assume your family spends about $2‚000 per year on energy. Traditional lighting accounts for about 12% of most people’s home energy bill, so $240 of that $2‚000 would go toward lighting. If you use half as much energy for lighting as you do now by turning off the lights whenever you leave a room, you could save about $120 per year. Of course, your actual results will depend on how many lights you have and how long they are on and off. And switching from incandescent bulbs to CFLs will reduce your energy use by as much as 75% immediately.