The Shocking Truth About Electricity

Phillip F. Schewe
American Institute of Physics

2249th Meeting Abstract
Friday, February 6, 2009 at 8:15 PM

Phillip F. Schewe


Many of the things people believe about electricity are wrong. For example, electricity is not primarily the flow of electrons down a wire. Your local utility does not make much of the power you receive at home. Despite headlines about large blackouts the electrical grid does work at about the 99.99% level. The speaker maintains that for some even this isn’t good enough, but for others it might be too good.

The delivery of electricity has changed a lot over the past decade and will change even more in the next decade. After looking at certain interesting features of the current electrical landscape, this talk will survey five big energy issues that will confront Congress, the incoming president, industry, and customers: (1) building transmission lines through people’s backyards; (2) paying for the removal of unwanted waste associated with the making of electricity with fossil and fissile fuels; (3) improving the standards for power plants (right now we throw two-thirds of the energy into the air); (4) smartening electricity use on the home front (don’t run the dishwasher at dinner time); and (5) electrifying transportation.

About the Author:

Phillip F. Schewe is the chief science writer at the American Institute of Physics. He the author of “The Grid,” a look at the history of electricity and its impact on culture. Published by the Joseph Henry Press, it was picked by NPR as one of the science books of the year for 2007. An eighteen-year record of his physics newsletter can be accessed at He has also been a playwright. He is currently at work on a biography of the physicist and essayist Freeman Dyson. He has a PhD in particle physics.

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