Ask an Expert about Electricity, Natural Gas,
& Energy Efficiency


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.

Click on a question below to see the answer:

NEW! How do solar panels work and send the electricity to the house?

Answer: Solar panels are a collection of special panels of solar cells, called modules, that capture sunlight and convert it directly into electricity. These panels are also known as photovoltaic, or PV. (“Photo” is Greek for light, and “voltaic” pertains to electricity.) Electrical current passes from modules through a wire leading to an inverter. About the shape of a waffle iron, this device changes direct current (DC), which flows with a fixed current and voltage, into alternating current (AC), which flows with oscillating current and voltage. Appliances worldwide operate on AC. From the inverter, the solar-generated power feeds into the electrical wires inside a home.

NEW! Why are solar panels good?

Answer: Solar panels are good because they create electricity from sunlight. Making electricity in this way produces significantly fewer Carbon Dioxide emissions than making it from coal, oil, or natural gas. Solar panels are also good because they contribute to building a sustainable energy future.

NEW! What are greenhouse gases and why are they bad?

Answer: Greenhouse gases are gases in the earth’s atmosphere that absorb the sun’s energy as it is reflected from the earth back up toward space. Because the gases absorb this energy, they work the way a greenhouse roof does: they keep rising heat contained and redirect it back to the earth, which warms the atmosphere. This warming of the atmosphere contributes to climate change, which has many adverse effects on the planet’s weather patterns, polar ice caps, ecosystems, and biodiversity.

NEW! How do you prepare for a storm?

Answer: Good thing to ask! Start by helping your family gather an emergency supply kit with enough food and water to last each of you three days, and other basic items like flashlights, batteries, and a first aid kit. (Check online for a more detailed list of what to include.) If anyone in your household depends on electric medical devices, plan to include chargers and/or extra batteries in your kit.

Make sure your parents have a battery-powered radio available for monitoring weather, road conditions, and messages from public officials, and that they fill vehicle gas tanks if an evacuation seems likely. If floods threaten, help move valuable papers and belongings to upper floors when possible. If high winds are predicted, help lock, tape, board, or shutter windows, and secure outdoor items that could be swept up by winds. Close off unused rooms in your home to conserve heat. Have your family create emergency contact cards with cell phone numbers for all immediate family members, as well as three people who live outside your area, to help you all to stay in touch—keep the cards in backpacks or wallets.

Why do people litter so much, and why is littering bad for the earth?

Answer: Littering is bad for the planet for many reasons. Litter can harm animals, plants, and humans. The “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” is an example of this. It is an “island” between Hawaii and California that consists solely of plastic garbage floating in a mass estimated to be twice the size of the state of Texas. Fish and birds swallow debris from this garbage patch and/or get tangled in it. The plastics in the garbage break down, releasing toxic chemicals that harm fish and the animals and humans that eat them. On land, toxins from litter can leach into groundwater and flow in storm water runoff to rivers, lakes, and oceans. Litter that stays on the earth can also cause a build-up of insects and rodents, which then bring germs and disease.

Why do people litter? Good question—perhaps they’re not aware of how harmful to the environment littering really is. Putting your waste in trash cans takes minimal effort, but it’s vital for keeping the environment clean and healthy.

How much can we get per kilowatt hour sold back to O&R for solar energy produced from our panels to the grid?

Answer: In order to sell your extra solar energy back to O&R, you have to have what’s called a net meter. With a net meter, when the solar energy system is generating more than the house is using, it spins the meter backward and sells the electricity back into the grid. Likewise, when the house is using more electricity than the system is generating, the meter spins forward as a purchase. At the end of the month it calculates net plus or minus. A negative bill gets credited to your account, to be applied to future months.
The amount of electricity produced by a system varies according to size, as does the monthly buy-back price credited to you for excess energy produced, so I can’t give you a set amount of how much you would be credited. The rate of buy-back is at wholesale, though, which is about half of what you pay for it—so you’re better off to use it rather than resell it. The real value of having a solar energy system feeding into the grid is in reducing the amount of energy that you need to purchase.

If I replace my fluorescent bulbs with LED bulbs how much energy and money can be saved?

Answer: Over its lifetime, an LED saves about 400 kilowatt hours of electricity compared to a CFL (compact fluorescent bulb). At current electricity rates, you will save about $40 for each CFL you replace.

I once saw a pair of shoes hanging from a power line. Why didn’t the shoes get burned up by the electricity in the line?

Answer: Shoes hanging on a power line don’t get burned for the same reason that birds standing on a power line don’t get shocked: They don’t give electricity a path to the ground, so electricity stays in the line and does not go through them. But if the shoes were to touch a power line and a power pole at the same time, they would provide a path to the ground and would get blasted with electric current. It wouldn’t be pretty! By the way, if you ever see someone throwing shoes up onto a line, tell them to stop! The shoes can damage the power line, or someone trying to get the shoes down could be seriously shocked or even killed.

Why does the flame on my stove burners look blue, but the flame of a campfire is yellow?

Answer: A natural gas flame burns hotter than a campfire. In general, cooler flames appear yellow, orange, or red, while hotter flames look blue or white. (Flecks of orange in your gas flames are OK, but if the flame is yellow, large, and flickering, the appliance may need a safety adjustment by a qualified repair person.)

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

Answer: Organic waste emits methane as it decomposes—or rots—in a 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.

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