The History Of America’s Grid: From Religious Beginnings To Smart Solutions
Have you ever wondered about the power that’s flowing through your device as you read this? It may surprise you to learn that it all comes from the same massive infrastructure known as the grid.
This tremendous network includes power plants, lines, batteries, poles, transformers, relays and generators – pieces essential to keeping the energy-dependent US functioning.
Most of the energy used by this giant grid comes from nuclear power, natural gas, coal and oil.
While efforts have been made to add more renewable sources to they mix like solar and wind energy, unpredictable weather patterns have made it challenging.
In order to better understand where we currently stand with the grid, its worth having a look at its history first.
We’ll explore how a priest played an important role in its development initially; find out how energy conservation came to be; and discover why smart energy grids hold so much promise going forward.
By getting informed on what powers the device you’re using now – the grid – you can gain valuable insight into some of the most important issues of our time.
The Revolutionary Impact Of Thomas Edison’S Parallel Circuit On Electric Grids
When the first electric grid was launched in the 1870s, it revolutionized how people lived.
Father Joseph Neri of Saint Ignatius College in San Francisco found a way to use battery-powered electricity to power a light in his window and word quickly spread.
By 1879, San Francisco had its own lighting grid consisting of two dynamos powered by a steam engine that lit up 20 lamps.
It wasn’t long before other grids were installed across the United States, including the Sierra Nevada gold mines of California and many other places.
The breakthrough that changed early grids for the better came when Thomas Edison invented the parallel circuit in the early 1880s.
In traditional series circuits, if one bulb went out then the whole system would fail but Edison’s discovery meant that electricity could take all available paths even if one was much longer than others – this allowed people to connect bulbs in parallel, avoiding systemic blackouts due to one faulty bulb.
By 1892, street lights wired with parallel circuits were installed everywhere and The New York Times hung dozens of these around their offices – and it was at this precise moment that people understood just how powerful electric grids could be.
It was an exciting time indeed as electricity ushered in a new era of convenience and efficiency!
The Discovery Of Alternating Current Transforms The Electric Grid And Enables Cities To Access Long-Distance Power Supplies
The invention of electric light resulted in a host of localized power grids owned by small private entities.
These setups, while useful, were scattered and could not necessarily power an entire city.
That changed with the discovery of alternating current (AC) in 1887.
Unlike direct current, AC is composed of an electromagnetic generator which allows for energy to flow in opposite directions.
This made it possible to boost low voltages into higher ones using a transformer.
High voltages can travel further with smaller losses than low ones, which led to the capacity to build power plants that could supply electricity to cities miles away.
One example is the Cataract Construction Company, who began constructing a large power plant at Niagara Falls in 1891 with the hope of providing a constant source of electricity to Buffalo 20 miles away.
Long-distance grid networks became realistic with AC and enabled larger grids that could provide electricity over an expansive area for the first time ever
Samuel Insull’s Vision: From 1,000 Electric Companies To The One-Stop Shop Of Electricity Monopoly
In 1902, the US had seen 815 municipal electricity companies spring up; by 1907, that number had risen to over 1000.
It may have seemed like electricity was ripe for monopolization and domination, just as Standard Oil Trust had done in the industry of oil production — but the very nature of this product complicated the whole process.
Unlike other goods such as oil or steel, which could be stored in large quantities and availabiel when needed, electricity is a resource that can’t be stored.
This meant that power plants weren’t able to access reserves during times of peak consumption — it would need to continuously produce enough supply to meet its maximum level at all times.
It posed a unique challenge for businessman Samuel Insull when he arrived in Chicago in 1892 with his ambitions of a monopoly on electricity; but he didn’t give up easily.
He found a solution – one which we will learn about soon – and thus began an era where modern electricity grids were born.
The Rise Of Electricity Monopolies Through Sam Insull’S Innovative Business Model
Samuel Insull had a dream—to create a monopoly over the American electricity industry.
But first, he needed to solve a problem—the lack of storage for electricity.
In order to make this dream a reality, he realized that he would need to build a huge customer base made up of homeowners, manufacturers, and transportation companies by offering them cheaper prices.
His plan paid off; soon, his customer base went from just 5,000 people in 1892 to hundreds of thousands of customers who took advantage of Insull’s lower prices.
He also diversified his offerings by providing off-peak electricity deals for manufacturing businesses.
As more people purchased electricity from Insull, economies of scale began to move his business forward even further.
The result was that both Insull’s company and many other businesses around the country were able to achieve success in their own respective states or cites thanks to his groundbreaking strategy – a tactic which eventually grew into an empire of centralized grids and monopolization.
By the end of the 1920s, only 10 holding businesses owned almost 75 percent of all the electric utilities in America – bringing us back full circle to Insull’s initial dream!
It’s clear that Samuel Insull truly did defy all odds and built an incredibly successful company before joining forces with other entities in order to reach his ultimate goal.
The Oil Embargo Of 1973 Showed The Need For More Efficient Power Sources
From the beginning of the electricity industry’s use of coal, even with advances in technological knowledge, it became clear that the efficiency of power plants using coal as a fuel source was limited to around 40 percent.
But what’s more is that this same efficiency could not be achieved in reality due to reliability and cost concerns.
The climbing prices of fuel and construction costs added to the financial complications and it was apparent that change needed to take place.
The electricity industry began turning away from coal and transitioning to oil, but when Arab oil producers stopped exporting oil to the United States in 1973 as a result of their political situation with Israel, the price of petroleum skyrocketed by 70 percent!
This led electricity companies to increase the cost for customers, all while trying to remain financially solvent.
It was an incredibly difficult time for the American electricity industry and it was obvious that because of issues with efficiency and supply of oil, major impacts had been made.
The Oil Embargo Sparked A Revolution In Energy Conservation
By the 1970s, an increasing amount of awareness around energy conservation was having a major impact on the electricity industry.
As people became more mindful of how much energy household appliances were consuming, they quickly learned how to conserve energy at home.
Even schoolchildren were being trained in saving energy — they were told to switch off lights when they left rooms, heat only as necessary and wear thicker sweaters where applicable.
This heightened consciousness eventually had a direct effect on politics during this era.
In 1976, Jimmy Carter was elected president largely due to his election campaign focusing heavily on energy reform – something which had widespread public backing due to the oil embargo that had taken place shortly before.
The result was legislation like the National Energy Act of 1978; with significant reforms geared towards increasing energy conservation and alternatives such as solar, wind and hydro power.
Crucially, electricity monopolies lost their former influence as utility companies had to adhere to new laws encouraging consumers to use less power.
The Inadequate Maintenance Of Aging Power Grid Infrastructure Threatens The Safety And Prosperity Of Our Society
It’s true: even the smallest problems on the grid can cause major disasters.
Take, for example, the 2003 blackout in the eastern United States and parts of Canada caused by a malfunction at Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station in Ohio.
50 million people were left without power and businesses suffered lost of $6 billion in revenue.
The consequences were far-reaching and devastating!
The root problem behind this blackout can be traced back to the 1992 Energy Policy Act, which mandated competition between electricity sellers – something that was difficult for utility companies to manage both organizationally and financially.
One good example is FirstEnergy, an Ohio utility that was managing Davis-Besse when the blackout happened.
After massive layoffs in response to this policy, FirstEnergy didn’t have enough personnel to properly maintain the plant, and rusting sections that had been discovered back in 2000 went untreated for years until it was too late.
These Utility Companies are clearly under considerable strain due to legislation such as this, which can have serious consequences if they are unable or unwilling to meet these expectations.
The 2003 blackout serves as a stark reminder of what can happen if we aren’t careful when dealing with our aging infrastructure!
Smart Grids: A Useful Tool For Utility Companies, But A Cause For Consumer Concerns
The technology available to upgrade the nation’s energy grid is vast, but it has left some customers feeling uneasy.
Smart grids, or digital meters, provide plenty of accurate data that can help utility companies better monitor and control consumption, but consumers fear that this could potentially lead to surveillance.
A study conducted in Germany back in 2011 found that these smart meters could be used to see which appliances are being used at any time.
And research from the University of Washington even suggested that they may be able to determine which TV channel someone was watching!
Concerns such as these have made many consumers wary of new technology being used on the grid.
For utility companies, however, this technology could be a blessing in disguise.
Having the ability to identify exactly when peak electricity usage occurs helps them quickly pinpoint issue locations while also enables them to take action to reduce overall electricity use during those times – such as raising prices – rather than having to turn on often older and more expensive plants.
Smart grids can certainly offer an improved infrastructure, but there is no doubt that customers want their privacy considered before any changes are made.
Building A Resilient Power Grid After A Disaster: The Benefits Of Microgrids And Diversification
When a natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy occurs, it’s a wake-up call for many people about the way that energy is produced today.
Bad weather has sparked the desire for more sturdy grids that can stand up to inclement conditions and power outages, and going smaller could be the answer.
Microgrids are small grids that can run independently from the main grid and provide power to areas that need it, even if they experience extreme weather conditions.
The White House report titled “Economic Benefits of Increasing Electric Grid Resilience to Weather Outages” defines such a grid as one whose outages affect fewer people, for shorter periods of time.
To make these microgrids effective, they need to be adaptable and able to run on different sources of energy such as diesel fuel, solar power, wind and natural gas – just like managing an investment portfolio with diversification being key.
There are already 300 microgrids in the US with more being constructed all over the place; helping us to become much more resilient when faced with inclement weather conditions or other disasters in the future.
In The Grid Book, readers are presented with the key message that our electric grid – an American artifact – needs to be rethought in order to keep pace with modern demands.
This is essential because electricity plays such a crucial role in our everyday lives, and energy resilience is more important than ever for our safety and security.
By understanding the history of grid development and its current limitations, we can come up with innovative solutions to ensure that our energy supply remains reliable for generations to come.