History of electricity
150 years on the path towards sustainability: history of electricity
Edison's first electric power plant only supplied current to a few light bulbs. Since then, the grid that carries electricity to our homes has expanded and is facing the biggest challenge so far: to become completely fossil-fuel free. Discover the history of electricity until nowadays.
As we know, electricity and light work together. But, in opposition to what has been popularly established, the inventor of electricity was not Edison. Nor was the first to patent the incandescent light bulb. Other inventors had already invented it a decade earlier, but his invention was the only one that became commercially viable. After obtaining the patent in 1879, he established the Edison Illuminating Company and opened the first electric power plant in 1882 to market electricity to the people who bought his light bulbs.
He started with 80 customers and 400 light bulbs, but his business grew to over 500 customers — including The New York Times — and 10,000 light bulbs in only two years. In addition to becoming the first electric power plant, it was also the first cogeneration plant, since the steam was used to heat adjoining buildings. That same year, H. J. Rogers, a paper manufacturer, built the first hydroelectric power plant on Fox River (Wisconsin, United States).
These first electric power plants operated with direct current, which prevented electricity from being carried over long distances. Another genius solved this problem: Nicola Tesla and his commitment to use alternating current. In 1895, he built the hydroelectric power plant in Niagara Falls with industrialist George Westinghouse, carrying electricity to Buffalo, which was 40 kilometres away. The electrification of the world had started and, with this, the second industrial revolution.
Two new projects drove this process in 1898: the Decew Falls hydroelectric power plant in Ontario (Canada) was the first to generate high-voltage electricity in the world, which would be transported over long distances; the power plant in Rheinfelden (Germany) was the first to use 50 Hz three-phase alternative current, today's standard almost everywhere around the globe.
In 1900, 40% of the electricity in the United States came from hydroelectric power plants. In 1940 it was 30% and it is currently only 6.3%. In 1951, the first experimental nuclear power plant was opened in Ohio (United States). During the 20th century, fossil fuels and nuclear power plants replaced water to generate energy throughout the world. What is the challenge of the 21st century? Without a doubt, to replace these with more sources of renewable energy.
Sun and air
The idea of concentrating sunbeams to use their heat comes from ancient Greece, but Frank Shuman was a pioneer and the first one to market this as a commercially viable solution. He established the Sun Power Co. in 1911, building the first solar farm in Tancony (United States). However, his biggest project, cut short by the First World War, was a 52,000 km2 solar farm in Sahara desert, which would generate enough energy to supply the entire planet.
The use of the sun's energy with photovoltaic panels started in the 1960s and its global production reached 1 TW after the first quarter of 2022 with China as the main driving agent, according to SolarPowerEurope. The other major source of clean renewable energy is wind power, with the largest growth worldwide in the last decade. Since the installation of the first wind turbine in 1956 off the Danish coast with 200 kW, in the first quarter of 2022 the installed capacity worldwide has reached 837 GW.
The dream of clean and never-ending energy could become real in the future if the ITER project, currently stalled due to technical problems, achieves its 2027 goals. That is, nuclear fusion, the energy of the stars, reproduced in a magnetic confinement reactor. Hydrogen is used as the fuel, one of the most abundant elements in our planet.
Many counties have no doubts about the need to invest in these sources, and is now one of the most common decisions across the globe. The Chinese government has committed to investments that will increase its wind and solar capacity by 450 GW, with 100 GW by 2022. Latin America and Europe are also expected to increase their investments while other countries such as Japan are changing their policy to expand their solar production in the long term.
The war in Ukraine in 2022 has also led to even greater pressure at the European level to try to achieve an effective replacement for gas, thus moving closer to the energy transition. This has led to several legislative changes in European countries and a strong increase in the commitment to renewable energies, as is the case in Germany.
Which of these energies will replace oil in the history books and provide us with clean, sustainable and never-ending energy in the future? The answer will come in a few decades.
Managing the grid
Electricity is quite a complex product: it is generated, distributed through the grid and sold to the end user. This is why the grid is so important: it must be made up of a system with various sources of generation, where sources can be added or replaced.
Solar power plants and wind turbines produce no electricity during a summer night with no wind. In addition, during periods of drought, the use of water for the generation of electricity will be limited. If homes turn on their air-conditioning systems and generate a demand peak, the use of thermal power plants must be intensified or additional power must be purchased from neighbouring countries. The grid and its managers must be prepared to cater for the demand with the necessary resources.