No, Edison Wouldn't Recognize Today's Electric Industry


A put down of the industry’s innovation can be put aside

Fortnightly Magazine - February 2016

We've all heard it said. If Thomas Edison were alive today, he'd recognize today's electric industry. Perhaps you've said it yourself, in some form or another, or nodded in agreement when a colleague rolled out the saying as a self-evident truth. 

The saying is a compelling put-down. It mocks today's utilities and the grid even more effectively than its close cousins. We've all heard those too. The grid is antiquated. The grid is typical of a third-world country. The grid is just plain dumb. So little progress since Edison suggests utilities have failed to innovate recognizable improvements. 

On the surface, the saying rings true. In Edison's time, power plants made electricity, transmission lines delivered the power to cities, and distribution lines delivered the power in turn to homes and workplaces. 

The saying doesn't bother with the late 19th century war between Edison on the one hand and Nicola Tesla and George Westinghouse on the other, over whether the grid should use direct current or alternating current. Edison vehemently opposed an alternating current grid, which is what we have relied upon since the early 20th century. 

That's all right, because Edison lived until October 18, 1931, and the saying only maintains that Edison would recognize today's industry. So I guess it's acceptable that in his last years, the industry as it was then is essentially what we have today. So much so that Edison couldn't distinguish between the two.

Upon closer examination, the claim that Edison would recognize today's electric industry is absurd. One only needs to take a look at the NELA Rate Book for 1930. (NELA was an association of electric utilities at that time.) 

For example, Commonwealth Edison Company, one of the largest utilities then, provided electric utility service to Chicago with a population of 3.4 million. (Chicago's population has actually shrunk over the last 86 years to 2.7 million.)

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The rate that Commonwealth Edison charged for its Residence Service incorporated a households' demand for electricity, roughly, as well as the cumulative energy it used, in a way that would be considered both quaint and intrusive into customers' privacy in 2016. Consumers paid 8 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) for the first three kWh per room, 6 cents for the next three kWh per room, and 3 cents per kWh for any excess. The per room approach was the utility's way to charge households with larger homes, presumably with larger demand, a higher rate than those with smaller homes, presumably with smaller demand.

It's noteworthy how low these kWh thresholds were. For a larger home with ten rooms, the 8 cent block applied to just the first 30 kWh of monthly consumption, and the 6 cent block applied to just the second 30 kWh. The rate fell to the 3 cent block after 60 kWh were used. 

A home with electric service generally had one or two appliances and a handful of lights. Almost no home today uses as little as 60 kWh monthly. Virtually all of us use ten to thirty times that much in a month.

In 1930, households' average consumption, nationwide, was a tiny 46 kWh monthly. Just 68% of households had electric utility service, though that statistic aggregated 85% of non-farm households and 10% of the farms that so many families lived on. The last full year of Edison's life was vastly different from today. US residential electricity consumption in 2014 was about 140 times greater than in 1930.

Hydroelectric plants generated around 35% of all the electricity sold to consumers in Edison's world. Outside of the northeast and Midwest, counting all of the power plants that weren't hydro, total generating capacity was only a little over five thousand megawatts. Now, a single nuclear power station in Arizona, where Palo Verde 1, 2 and 3 operate, has a generating capacity equal to four-fifths of this total in Edison's last years.

The fossil fuel plants were much smaller in capacity, relative to today's plants, much less efficient, and had far higher emissions of pollutants. Edison never saw a nuclear power plant, a wind or solar farm, a natural gas combined cycle unit or combustion turbine.

The best Edison saw was coal power plants that produced a kWh from 1.5 pounds of coal. Our coal plants do the same from about 1 pound, a 33% improvement in efficiency. The best he saw was natural gas plants that produced a kWh from 18 cubic feet of gas. Our gas plants do the same from about 7 cubic feet, a 60% improvement in efficiency. We now combust about 60 times as much natural gas to produce electric power as when Edison was around.

We hardly burn petroleum anymore to run power plants as the industry did when Edison saw it, primarily on the islands of Hawaii. We do still burn coal though most of it is from low-sulfur seams that are surface mined in the Rocky Mountain region. Edison wouldn't recognize a coal industry not dominated by the deep mines of Appalachia.

The wizard of Menlo Park would most likely be impressed by the incredible precision of the continuous emission monitoring we now have erected on every power plant stack. And he wouldn't know what to make of the data, available to every citizen, on the hour-by-hour emissions and operation of each plant unit-by-unit. 

In Edison's time, transmission lines operated at a much smaller voltage, relative to today's 765, 500, 345, and 230 kilovolt lines. They transferred far less power over substantially shorter distances, with much less efficiency (much greater losses).

In Edison's time, cumulative meters were invented and perfected to fairly bill utility customers large and small. Imagine Edison's excitement if he saw that customer usage could be metered minute-to-minute, as in today's smart meters, enabling fairer billing, more efficient utility operations and capital investment, and precise information on service outages instantaneously.

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Consider the greatest innovation over the last twenty years in the industry that Edison invented, the emergence of extraordinarily efficient natural gas-based generation of electric power. Combined cycle has become the dominant generating technology with such low heat rates and such fast response rates. Now with the game-changing innovation in horizontal drilling and fracturing in gas production, combined cycle has almost single-handedly driven electricity to below 1.5% of Americans' consumer expenditures. 

Edison wouldn't recognize the vastly improved technology of today's electric industry, the dynamics of regional system operations, or the revolution of the smart grid. He wouldn't recognize society's hyper-dependence on electrical machines, appliances and electronic devices, and them and electricity priced so affordably that usage is universal and ubiquitous. He wouldn't have heard of demand response, net metering, renewable energy certificates, renewable portfolio standards, capacity and ancillary services markets, energy efficiency audits, time-of-day rates, etc. 

Edison certainly wouldn't have mocked today's utilities and the grid for being not much changed from his day. Instead he likely would be fascinated and impressed by how far we've come in extending his dreams in every direction by an unimaginable degree.

What do you think are some of the most significant advances of the electric industry from Edison's time? Tell us in a Letter to the Editor, We'll publish the best of the letters that come in.