Modern life requires electricity
Steve Mitnick is Editor-in-Chief of Public Utilities Fortnightly and author of the book “Lines Down: How We Pay, Use, Value Grid Electricity Amid the Storm.”
Take a time machine to the 1880's. Let's see what they were seeing then.
Franklin Leonard Pope wrote his article, "The Electric Motor and Its Applications," for the March 1888 issue of Scribner's Magazine. Scribner's was one of the most popular media outlets of that time a hundred and thirty years ago.
Frank Pope's extensive text deeply analyzed the birth of the electricity industry, while the industry was still in the delivery room. The article says at one point:
"It was at once perceived that the electric lighting conductors, if introduced into every building in a town and supplying a constant electric current, at an expense ordinarily not exceeding 8 or 10 cents per horse-power per hour, could be utilized with great advantage in driving sewing machines, lathes, ventilating apparatus, and innumerable other sorts of machinery for domestic purposes, or for the lighter class of mechanical industries..."
What was Frank Pope telling us? There was enormous demand for electric lighting upon the introduction of the incandescent bulb in the 1880's, as well as in the 1890's and the early twentieth century. Everyone wanted electric lighting. Building after building was electrified.
Once connected to the grid, people realized they could use electricity for other purposes, especially with the refinement of the electric motor. Being connected crossed the threshold from lighting service to electric service and its much broader potential.
Electricity was hardly economical. That "8 to 10 cents per horse-power per hour" would be like three dollars per kilowatt-hour today, more than twenty times today's cost. That's why — as much as electricity was craved — it was initially in the reach of wealthy residences and well-capitalized businesses only.
Yet, electricity's unique qualities were clear to all. In 1888, more so than in our day when we've become accustomed to one of history's greatest game changers. Electricity's advantages over fuel combustion at the point of use more than offset — indeed they blew away — electricity's premium cost.
The Scribner's article later explained, after listing the many applications of electricity and electric motors already in use in those first years, why those apps were so compelling:
"It would be almost impossible to catalogue the number and variety of purposes for which the electric motor is now in daily use. Some of the most usual applications are for printing presses, sewing machines, elevators, ventilating fans, and machinist's lathes...
It is a very simple matter, by means of a current derived from the same dynamo [a generator supplying incandescent electric lighting apparatus], to operate elevators, hoists, presses, pumps, trucks, tramway-cars, and many similar appliances, which are now worked at greater expense, and with far less convenience, by hand, animal, or independent steam power...
The advantages of having every individual machine driven by its own independently controlled power, and at any required speed, are so obvious that it is scarcely necessary to mention them..."
This is Frank Pope's crucial point for us. To operate a machine in the 1880's, you either used your muscles, those of other people, those of animals, or fossil fuel-fired steam power. If you used fuel-fired steam power, you wouldn't have a steam engine for each machine. That would be crazy in several regards - crazily expensive, crazily dirty, crazily space-consuming.
Instead, you had a single steam engine to power a whole shop of machines. Mechanical connections between the machines kept them all going.
Until the development of the electric motor, the transmission of motive power in industrial processes required a jungle of line shafts, belts, compressed air, and hydraulic pressure. With the electric motor, each machine could be driven by its own customized power source. This was nothing less than a revolutionary development.
Each electrical machine, appliance and device then and now functions on its own. The power — whether from a plug or a battery within — is optimized for functionality. There is no need for the user to ignite a fuel to start 'er up.
On the farm, until the electric motor, the handling of grain and pumping of water required human and animal work - grueling work. Most Americans lived on farms in the 1880's. With the electric motor, agricultural productivity and the quality of rural life increased dramatically.
Frank Julian Sprague had invented the first practical DC motor in 1886, just two years before the Scribner's article. Frank Sprague soon introduced the first electric trolley, elevator, and subway. These revolutionized the productivity and quality of urban life.
The Niagara Falls generating plant, completed a few years later, in 1895, was the first large central station. Some of its output was transmitted twenty miles for lighting and street cars in Buffalo.
This next gen of the grid popularized the two-phase AC system developed by Nikola Tesla and commercialized by George Westinghouse. Tesla's AC motors were already being installed throughout the country.
At the industry's inception, a hundred and thirty years ago, electricity grew to take over the lighting of homes, businesses and public spaces. Once buildings were electrified, inventors thought up non-lighting uses, particularly powering motors. This mainly freed up people (and their animals) from manual work. But there was also substitution of electricity for fossil-fuel combustion in homes and workplaces.
Consider how we heat buildings. Fire heated every home in America in the early twentieth century. A hundred years later, fire — the burning of a fuel in the basement typically — still heats a majority of homes.
What about electricity? In the mid-twentieth century, electricity was rapidly replacing fire for home heating. Until the trend came to an end in the 1960's and 1970's.
The grid's electricity in those decades was not clean. Electric generation was a leading source of pollution. Policymakers pushed back. Electricity - as the way to heat homes — was discouraged. In favor of the burning of fossil fuels in basements.
Electric heating nonetheless grew little by little. In part, this was due to greater population growth in the south and west. Fire competes poorly there with electricity as a heating method. In part, this was due to the inherent cost and convenience advantages of electricity in housing development.
Electric service is automatically provided to every new home. Natural gas service is not. A developer must ask, do we add gas service so buyers can heat and cook with gas instead of electricity? Some developers will decide to do so. Others will decide not to.
In the home, electric irons and washing machines transformed the laundering of clothes. Electric vacuums transformed the cleaning of rooms. Electric refrigerators, bread toasters, tea kettles, coffee percolators, waffle irons, corn poppers and marshmallow toasters transformed the preparation of food.
To say that the lives of women particularly were transformed is a gigantic understatement. This revolution, really, set the stage for their opportunities and roles in society to expand in every direction.
And for men and women, electric fans, telephones and radios transformed comfort, communication and entertainment. We're so dependent on electrical machines, appliances and devices that - as demonstrated by the devastating damage of the recent hurricane to Puerto Rico's grid - modern life comes to a screeching halt without them.
It is seldom remembered that, in the 1880's, Thomas Edison invented research and development. Don't miss the enormity of this point. Thomas Edison invented R&D. The world's great laboratories — and all of us —- owe the Wizard of Menlo Park for this too.
Just visit his expansive R&D campus in West Orange, New Jersey, beautifully preserved by the National Park Service. Edison's scientists and engineers rolled out product after product - from industrial machinery to motive power distribution to office dictating machines to Christmas tree lights to movies. Some of the innovations replaced fuel-burning with electrical processes. While others created whole new processes to please people and make them more productive.
The first great Age of Electrification continued for decades. By the late twentieth century, Edison's successors continued to roll out product after product.
Consider lighted screens. Older readers will recall that lighted screens were a rarity when they were children. Small black-and-white televisions and a sprinkling of other vacuum tube devices like oscilloscopes and radar/sonar. Today, vivid color screens — both large and small — are ubiquitous in our lives.
The first great Age of Electrification was analog. The second great Age of Electrification, that is just gaining momentum now, is digital.
Harvey Hubbell's invention in 1904 accelerated the adoption of appliances. His electric power plug enabled people to safely connect appliances to a light socket in a time before the wiring of buildings.
An advertisement by Hotpoint in 1919 said: "A willing servant stands at attention behind every electric light socket... Why not set this idle energy to working for you?"
The ad compared electric appliances with their competitors that combusted fuel at the point of use: "Save Food Values, Save Fuel, Save Time." And "Cook in Cool Comfort."
No one in the early twentieth century would question this motto and others like it. Because everyone wanted to live in an electricity-based world where manual labor and burning coal, oil and wood in homes and workplaces would be eliminated or drastically reduced.
The Census Bureau reports annually the results of its extensive American Community Survey for the prior year. Included is extraordinary detail on our population, society and economy, and on how Americans heat their homes.
In 2016, 48.1 percent of all homes were heated with natural gas. 38.7 percent were heated with electricity.
Electric heat has been growing rapidly. In 2005, eleven years earlier, 50.5 percent were gas-heated and 32.5 percent were electric-heated.
At this rate of growth, electric heat will soon surpass 40 percent of all homes.
Already, 50 percent of rented homes are electric-heated. Most homes, however, are owned rather than rented. In 2016, 32.1 percent of owned homes were electric-heated.
Electric-heated homes are by far most prevalent in the South. 63.0 percent use electricity for heat. Including 74.3 percent of rented homes and 56.7 percent of owned homes.
Electric-heated homes are the least prevalent in the Northeast. 15.2 percent use electricity for heat. Under 10 percent of owned homes use electricity for heat.
In the Northeast, uniquely, oil-heated homes are common. 22.2 percent use fuel oil for heat. Over 25 percent of owned homes use oil for heat.
In 2016, the South had 16.3 million electric-heated homes that are owned and 11.9 million that are rented. 16.6 million homes in the region, owned and rented, don't use electric heat.
The West had 4.0 million owned and 5.0 million rented electric-heated homes. 17.6 million others don't use electric heat.
The Midwest had 2.6 million and 3.1 million rented electric-heated homes. 20.8 million others don't use electric heat.
The Northeast had only 1.2 million owned and 2.0 million rented electric-heated homes. 17.7 million others don't use electric heat.
Nationally, 72.7 million homes don't use electric heat. They mostly burn natural gas, fuel oil, bottled/tank/LP gas, and wood at their homes to heat them.
The Energy Department summarized the country's heavy dependence on fossil fuel combustion:
"Three fossil fuels — petroleum, natural gas, and coal — have provided more than 80% of total U.S. energy consumption for more than 100 years. In 2015, fossil fuels made up 81.5% of total U.S. energy consumption, the lowest fossil fuel share in the past century.
In EIA's Annual Energy Outlook 2016 Reference case projections, which reflect current laws and policies, that percentage declines to 76.6% by 2040."
Electricity powers an insignificant share of the country's transportation sector, tiny in comparison to fossil fuel combustion at the point of use. Electricity powers about ten percent of the industrial sector. About twenty-five percent of the commercial sector. And about twenty-five percent of the residential sector.
Looked at another way, fossil fuel combustion at the point of use is twenty-six trillion Btu in the transportation sector. That's a "ton" of fossil fuel. The amount is nineteen trillion Btu in the industrial sector. Four trillion Btu in the commercial sector. And five and a half trillion Btu in the residential sector.
Looked at a another way. There's a whole lot of potential for the Second Age of Electrification.