The Biggest Power Breakthroughs

The Biggest Power Breakthrough infographicOriginal article:

What was the biggest power breakthrough in the last 100 years?

part one

Kathleen Wolf Davis | Dec 13, 2014

A lot of things have changed. It used to be that utilities talked about outages and reliability. Now they talk about branding and social media—and outages and reliability. OK. So maybe we haven’t totally changed. There’s certainly been evolution, but there’s also a solid base underneath all that new growth.

So, we knocked on a few doors and asked about that solid base—the industry a-ha moments that defined the last century. What are the biggest, most powerful elements in the equation? We’ve separated these answers into three parts. This section is part one. Stay tuned for parts two and three in the upcoming weeks into 2015.

Read the first installment of this series from Thanksgiving here.

See if you agree with the answers. (Whether you do or you don’t, tell us all about it on Twitter @IntelUtil using the #powerbreakthru.)


“I believe the biggest breakthrough/achievement was the development of the automatic secondary alternating current distribution network by the United Electric Light & Power Co. of NY in 1922.

“The first 40 years of utility power distribution to customers was primarily in the form of direct current due to efficiency issues with alternating current in areas of dense concentration of load. The renowned engineer Charles Steinmetz recommended, in 1896, that dc distribution should be installed wherever the customer base was sufficient to amortize the investment in the expensive substations and heavy copper cables that were required for 120/240 volt dc power distribution. Retention of dc also enabled the use of battery reserve/backup in the substations. By the second decade of the 20th century, the cost of dc distribution represented 50% of the total system investment and companies began exploring means to make ac distribution more practical.

“Virtually every city had an alternating current network concept under development by 1920 but all had some deficiency. The United automatic network was the first to resolve all the issues and became the standard; it also introduced the modern 208Y/120 volt three-phase, four-wire system. Six years after introduction it was cited by N Y Edison Co. President Matthew Sloan in his disclosure of the planned conversion of the NYE system to ac—a system which was then the most complex and extensive dc utility distribution in the world. The automatic network enabled continued reduction in the cost of power, simplified the physical requirements of utility system and enabled standardization of electrical products. Prior to that, generation involved both 60 Hz. for ac customers and 25 Hz and substation conversion for dc customers. Consumer products had also involved two separate lines, one for urban dc customers and another for ac customers. The results encouraged greater market expansion with consequent load growth and economies of scale as simpler and more efficient ac devices came on the market. A total of 315 US utilities adopted the automatic network over the next fifty years, today more than 350 cities worldwide employ automatic distribution networks.”

  • Joe Cunningham, power historian/author of the book “New York Power”

“At a traditional level, the greatest breakthrough in the last 100 years was the advent of alternating current, which brought electricity to the masses, regardless of location.”

  • Karen Joslyn, vice president, energy and manufacturing, SAS


“The choice between AC and DC power has been one of the biggest milestones in the industry in the last 100 years. We struggled to choose between AC and DC power and picked the best compromise technology offered 100 years ago. Looking ahead, I believe the biggest breakthrough that will revolutionize the smart grid is just a few steps ahead of us when we combine the equivalent unanswered dilemma of radio frequency (RF) and power line carrier (PLC) communications for the smart grid by changing the game and combining both technologies together.”


  • Simon Pontin, CTO, Itron


“The ability to harness and actually use electricity was the biggest breakthrough.  At that point, we could create a business around electricity, and it changed the world.”


  • Mike Guyton, senior vice president and chief customer officer, Oncor


“The automated secondary network AC system was and is an engineering marvel and was the smart grid of its day. This special network grid is very costly to build and maintain. However, compared to where smart grid solutions have evolved to date, it is still the superior solution.”


  • Carl Goeckeler, utility engineer, KCP&L


“What’s probably most striking about the energy industry over the past 100 years is how little it has changed.  If Thomas Edison were to come back today, he would find an electric system that looks and functions largely as it did 100 years ago.  That is changing with the introduction of digital technology.  Microchips and microprocessors will change the nature of our generation, the way we operate the grid, the service we offer consumers and our communications with consumers.  The digital age marks the third major economic revolution in history.”

  • Anne Pramaggiore, president and CEO, ComEd

Many sections on tech advances are interconnected, really.


“For years, the power grid was a one-way network. Utilities could control supply, but they couldn’t adequately or dynamically control demand. The most practical way to deal with an anticipated spike in consumption was to increase supply. Demand response was the first step in transforming the relationship between utilities and consumers into a two-way street. Solar, wind, nuclear power and other innovations have all been about changing the mix of supply: demand response really allowed the industry to examine what they do from the other way around. Over the next 100 years, controlling demand will play a fundamental role in the power industry. It will help reduce emissions, allow utilities to postpone capital upgrades, and help conserve natural resources.

“You’re also going to see a greater awareness among consumers about how to use power and how to reduce their bills that can be traced back to the development of demand response. Demand response will also shift from being about getting large amounts of power from a few customers a few times a year to small amounts of customers across wide territories on a continual basis. The grid will become fluid.

“It’s a clunky name, but a beautiful concept.”

  • Amit Narayan, CEO, AutoGrid Systems


“My personal favorite is battery energy storage because it decouples generation from consumption.”

  • Gary Rackliffe, vice president of smart grids, ABB

Now that you know what made the power industry in the last 100 years, what about what’s coming in the next 100? Get a jumpstart with some background into smart cities. Save the date for Energy Central’s Smart Cities 2015 conference March 24-25, 2015 in Charlotte, North Carolina. Early bird registration will open soon.

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