From Flame to Fission: The Evolution of Energy Production

 

Lightning strikes. A resounding crash echoes through the forest, and a flaming crack splits the length of a towering Oak. As the tree burns and the animals flee, a solitary figure strides hesitantly forward out of the darkness.

The figure, cold and shivering, carefully approaches the burning tree and reaches out his hand to grasp a branch wreathed in flames. As warmth begins to envelope his body, the embers of curiosity begin to ignite within his mind. He stares in wonder- only for a moment- before quickly retreating back to his makeshift shelter, now content with a way to keep the biting chill of the wind and the rain at bay.

We have been intimately linked with fire from the very beginning, ever since the first of our ancestors struck flint to steel to create a spark. We have been fueled with the desire to know more, to do more, and to harness the power of the natural world around us. In our day to day lives, we use electricity for nearly everything that we do- but how did we get here? How did we transition from that first flame to energy generation on a global scale?

To understand the advancements that we have made along the way, it is important to realize the factors at play that made them possible in the first place. The move away from being a primarily hunter-gatherer society was an important one; modern civilizations began to spring up in places like Mesopotamia and Mesoamerica originating as far back as 12,000 BC. This happened naturally as we began to implement the cultivation of crops and livestock for resources- there’s a reason we call settling down somewhere “Putting down roots!”

Over the next few thousand years, there were a few key side effects that resulted from that transition of constant movement in search of food to a more settled life reliant on farming. First and foremost, now that their immediate survival was no longer in question at all times, man began to seek out and acquire comfort items. More permanent forms of shelter and creating tools to make work easier were a few byproducts of this shift. Second, there was more time than ever to socialize, and from that, discuss new ideas and provoke insightful thoughts on the world around them. And lastly, for perhaps the first time ever, man was dealing with a surplus of food and resources: This inevitably led to trade, the development of the first economies and currencies, and specializations in the classifications of work: blacksmiths, butchers, farmers, etc.

It wasn’t until around 3500 BC that we began developing a written language, in large part due to the necessity of facilitating trade across vast distances and keeping records of resource management amongst communities. Powerful new empires began to emerge as trade flourished, and most importantly, we now had a reliable means of passing down knowledge beyond the limited scope of verbal communication.

The Ancient Egyptians, followed by the Greeks, and later, the Roman Empire, all played integral roles in laying the groundwork for society to develop and prosper in a myriad of ways. The birth of mathematics and engineering, the foray into the sciences and philosophy: all of these new avenues culminated in incredible advancements and impressive architectural feats that still amaze us to this day.

One of the problems that arose once nations began to accumulate large stockpiles of wealth and resources was, of course, that others wanted it- and not everybody wanted to trade for it. If there has ever been an upside to war, though, it is that with it always comes technological advancements as each side tries to gain a tactical advantage over the other.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, however, the rate at which scientific progress and societal advancements began to slow somewhat as different nations established themselves, making their contributions for the next generation to build off of, and the borders of the world slowly began to fill themselves out. The same cycle propagated itself for nearly a thousand years, advancements still being made- albeit slowly- as society still progressed day by day, year by year.

The introduction of the water and windmill, the discoveries and use of coal and gunpowder, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment: all brought us ever closer, inch by inch, to the moment in our history where everything would change. The singular moment where an explosion of progress at a never-before-seen rate would spring forth from harnessing the power created by a new discovery, where exponential advancements would truly propel us forward into the modern world.

I am speaking, of course, of electricity. The discovery and the implementation were a two-pronged endeavor, and the implementation essentially came down to another invention: engines.

All the way back in 1698, on the brink of the Industrial Revolution, Thomas Savery patented the world’s first steam pump. One could hardly call this an engine, but it did however pave the way for Thomas Newcomen to develop a working steam engine in 1712, and later for James Watt to add a condenser and vastly increase the efficiency of the coal-powered steam engine in 1769.

Simultaneously, experiments were being conducted across Europe dealing with a newly discovered condition that involved using the power of friction to imbue objects with properties of attraction and repulsion. Once imbued, these items had a peculiar quality of shocking anyone who touched it, while at the same time discharging sparks. In Leyden, a device was created that was able to reliably store this “Charge,” and a theory was proposed that this newly discovered “Charge” worked in a similar way to a fluid.

Across the Atlantic, Benjamin Franklin was at the forefront of electrical experiments in the New World, and had also started using Leyden Jars. He was one of the first to connect multiple Leyden Jars in series to increase the charge, postulated on the conductive properties of this “Electric Fluid” and created a basic description of electric phenomena that we still use to this day. He was even the first to coin the term “Electrical battery.” And of course, he conducted his renowned kite experiment in 1752: connecting a wire to the end of a kite in a thunderstorm, he drew a negative charge into the kite and proved that lightning was in fact an electric discharge that could charge an attached metal key or fill an attached Leyden jar with a positive charge.

Many more conceptual discoveries and experiments were conducted over the next few decades to better replicate this electric condition and understand it’s properties, while at the same time the idea of using large-scale factories to produce uniform materials and replaceable components began to explode in America and across Europe. This made engines more replicable and commonplace, and allowed more people easy access to necessary equipment for scientific advancements.

The next great scientific leap came as Michael Faraday began to build upon a theory that magnetism was inherently related to electricity, and he created a primitive electric motor using electromagnets. Over the course of 10 years, Faraday continued his research, and in 1831 proved that an electric current would be produced in a wire moving by a magnet, essentially creating the world’s first generator.

Unfortunately, this breakthrough was mostly utilized in specialized lab experiments, as time and improvements to reliability were again a detracting factor to progress. It took another 50 years before generators were at a place where they could be reliably constructed on a large enough scale to have any significant impact or use.

Then, along came a man named Thomas Edison, a partially deaf telegrapher with dreams of being a full-time inventor. He made a name for himself making improvements to the telegraph, and in 1878 attracted the attention of wealthy banker J.P. Morgan, who resolved to invest in Edison’s vision of replacing gaslight on a large scale.

Edison Electric Light Company was established, and within the span of a year the world had its first incandescent electric light. Not satisfied with the mere invention of a lightbulb, however, Edison envisioned a centralized location that would be capable of supplying the electricity necessary to also power his bulbs to customers all over the nation. Once again with the financial support of J.P. Morgan, he moved to New York and began construction on Pearl Street Station.

Pearl Street Station opened its doors for business in September of 1882 and was the world’s first central generating plant (It was technically also the first cogeneration plant, as Edison piped the runoff steam to the neighboring buildings to provide them centralized heating!).

Finally, the marriage between steam engines and electric generators had come together to create the basis of the energy production which we still use today. Among Edison’s first customers were bankers on nearby Wall Street, who used his generated DC power to light up their offices with his incandescent bulbs.

The one critical drawback to Pearl Street Station, however, was that since it generated DC power, the range was severely limited in how far the generated electricity could be provided to customers. Pearl Street Station kicked off a string of competitors vying for municipal contracts, as customers needed to be within the confines of a mile from a generating plant in order for the DC power to reach them at a usable amount at such low voltage levels.

This ensued for 6 more years as the popularity of electric lighting swept the nation, and plants began springing up across the nation as everyone wanted access to this incredible new technology to power their homes and businesses. Then, in 1888, everything changed again when Nikola Tesla invented the AC motor with a multiphase generator, solving the transmission problem in one broad stroke. A new plant was then constructed at Niagara Falls utilizing Tesla’s new generators, and in 1896 began transmitting power 20 miles away to the city of Buffalo, proving AC power’s legitimacy and dominance over DC power in the world of transmission once and for all.

In the interim period, an up-and-coming employee of Thomas Edison named Samuel Insull had quickly begun to make a name for himself, establishing himself squarely at the forefront of any and all new innovative improvements.

Though Insull does not have the same name recognition as Edison, he was the true father of modern-day electric grid. He had quickly become Edison’s personal assistant, and in 1892 moved to Chicago to take on the position of President at Chicago Edison Co. There, he alone set the golden standard with his ideas and implementation of new technology.

Insull cracked the formula on the load factor and was the first American to offer his customer’s tiered rates based on “Off-peak” usage. He was able to increase his profits exponentially while also drastically limiting new capital purchases. When Tesla came out with his new AC motor, Insull quickly saw that it was superior, and was one of the first to switch from the outdated DC generators. Insull was also the first to implement new steam turbines into his facilities, capable of producing more power from a smaller and quieter footprint.

Beyond the technical changes he implemented, he had a clever mind for the business-side of things as well. He set out to ensure that his plants had great economies of scale and could cut costs while producing more. He realized that consolidating with other small-sized generating stations would allow him to more efficiently operate his plants and bought up dozens of competing companies and connected them all to the same grid, relegating them as substations or delegating others as emergency back-up power sites. He even strived to diversify his customer base with rural users and established that having as many customers with as many different usage patterns as possible would continue to cut costs and increase profits.

Everywhere he went and everything he did, others in the industry took notice and were quick to copy his actions. He took steps to help regulate the newly born industry, as he foresaw legislation coming regarding monopolies, similar to what he had seen happen to railroads early on in his life. He believed that utilities should be natural monopolies to keep costs low for all parties, and was one of the industry’s first proponents to setup regulations around that belief, including advocating municipal ownership.

He acquired a vast utility empire, and by 1929 his holding company controlled utilities across 32 states, with estimated assets over $500 million. His empire was not to last, however, as the Great Depression wrought havoc upon his company, and he quickly fell into bankruptcy. His company collapsed, he fled the country, and died a few years later in relative obscurity.

As a direct result from the formation (and subsequent collapse) of Insull’s Holding Company and others like it, The Public Utilities Holding Company Act of 1935 was passed, and all utilities were required to register with the newly formed Securities and Exchange Commission. Recently elected President Franklin Roosevelt also played a large role in reorganizing the utility industry and imposed many policies in his New Deal that have continued to shape the industry to this day.

Meanwhile, while the groundwork for the distribution network was being established in America, a group of scientists on the other side of the globe were on the verge of making a discovery that would change how energy was generated forever. The year was 1934, and physicist Enrico Fermi was in the midst of an experiment with the goal of splitting an atom by firing neutrons at it. He was not alone, as Otto Hahn, Fritz Strassman, Lise Meitner, and Niels Bohr all continued to make advancements in this field as well until 1942, when all of their research and experiments were ready to be put to the test.

A group, led by Fermi, met at the University of Chicago in November of that year, and construction on the world’s first nuclear reactor began. Then, on December 2, 1942, they were ready for their first demonstration. After a few agonizingly tense hours of firing neutrons at the Uranium-235 and slowly removing the Cadmium control rods, critical mass was reached, and the nuclear reaction became self-sustaining. The world had been changed forever.

As World War II was in full swing at this point, the timing was unfortunately ripe for this new technology to be weaponized and used first in war instead of in peace, but I’ll dive deeper into the path of the peaceful atom in a future blog.

After work on the Manhattan Project concluded, the Atomic Energy Commission was formed in 1946 with the goal of developing nuclear energy to generate commercially available electricity to the electric grid. The first test reactor was built in Idaho, and generated electricity for the first time on December 20th, 1951. After that, the first commercial plant was constructed in Shippingport, Pennsylvania on December 18th, 1957, and was fed into the Duquesne Light company grid. This in turn provided the world’s first electricity generated from nuclear fission to the residents of Pittsburgh.

Since then, the electric grid has continued to scale, has become ever more efficient as the demand has risen, and is increasingly moving towards Clean Energy sources. It is a dynamic system, ever-changing and rapidly evolving. With advancements in technology coming at an ever-increasing rate, there is a vast amount of data to sort through to stay up-to-date on industry news and new rate orders. We’ve explored the history of how we got to this point, but what comes next? What’s in store for the future?

The team here at KFR Services is here to help. Our RateAcuity system is updated by our expert data analysts as soon as changes happen.  We bring National electric rates- as well as Canadian electric rates- to your fingertips the moment you need them. We pride ourselves on having the most accurate and up-to-date information out there! Try our 14 day free trial risk-free today, and stay tuned for more blogs on more industry topics that are important to you.

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