The history of the U.S. electric grid

Where did our electric grid come from? It's a complicated question to answer. That's because the grid we have today didn't come from any single place. Instead, its origins are scattered, distributed geographically, technologically, and philosophically.

Different people built different parts of the grid in different ways and for different reasons. For many years—up until the 1970s in some places—individual towns and cities were independent grids that weren't connected to anything else around them. They functioned as little islands, incapable of reaching out for help when things went wrong.

More importantly, the grid wasn't designed. It evolved. Nobody ever really sat down and thought about how to build the best grid possible. The grid as we know it was assembled from bits and pieces, from mini-grids that were often built to be cheap and to go up quickly. Quality wasn't always priority number one.

I think the story of the electric grid in Appleton, Wisconsin—the second centralized electric grid in the world and the first hydroelectric power plant in the world—is a great example of all of this history in action.

Last month, I got to talk about Appleton at a Barnes and Noble in the Bay Area. The video of that talk went up on CSPAN Book TV yesterday. It's not available for embedding, unfortunately, but I encourage you to give it a watch. The talk covers not only history, but also the importance of writing about science online, rather than in print. You guys, as commenters at BoingBoing, have made my writing better—and for that you get a shout-out. (Plus: At the 5 minute mark, you can see a little cameo of Dean and Pesco in the audience.)

Watch the video at Book TV

Learn more about the history of the electric grid, and how the grid works today, by reading my book, Before the Lights Go Out.

Image: The Electric Highway, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from tomsaint's photostream


    1. Actually, that’s dust on the sensor. Dust on the lens doesn’t show up in photos as it’s out of focus. Dust on the sensor isn’t always this easy to spot either, only when you’re stopped down to a small aperture (as the photographer did here to get both the foreground and background in focus).

  1. To accommodate the development of decentralized renewable energy sources over the next half-century,  we need an Electric Eisenhower in the White House. Ike came back from Nazi Germany impressed with the Autobahn and launched in Interstate system in the U.S. in part because it’s a great way to move tanks around. It changed America, for better or worse.
    The Smart Grid should be considered a national security asset and be designed (along with pipelines) with that in mind. Underground, long-haul power corridors could even be built along the existing rights of way of the interstate system.
    It won’t be cheap, but amortized over 50 years it would be affordable and would provide a more secure asset. 

  2. This is a complete contrast to the UK grid system which was seen as highly strategic and so was defined by a government act in 1926. The reason was to keep electricity flowing in times of war or trouble, say for example, coal-miners in one part of the country were on strike. It has been controlled by a single organisation all the time so there is no piecemeal development. It is all integrated well.

  3. Utility electric power was direct current first, and alternating current came along years later. The first big DC generators were called “dynamos”. They didn’t have permanent magnets but used field coils, sometimes with series and parallel field coils in the same machine, and their output was “dynamic” and automatically self-adjusting to match the load. They were usually started with no load like modern portable AC generators, and built up voltage in themselves as they got up to speed, then the load is attached.

    DC power could not use transformers, and you need high voltages to send power long distances cheaply on small gauge wire. So DC was produced within a mile or two of where it was needed, at “utility voltage” (120 to 240 volts) without the need to “step” the voltage up or down before use.

    Factories would have their own in-house generators, and wealthy people could afford to have personal generator systems installed in their home or business, with a gas-engine generator and a bank of batteries to operate their lamps.

    Illustration of a small home/business lighting plant:
    Hawkins Electrical Guide, Copyright 1917, Volume 10, Chapter 45, Storage Battery Systems, p 989

    (Yes, I edit Wikipedia technical articles for fun.)

  4. That’s an interesting photo of transmission towers. As you look at it, spare a moment or two to appreciate the skill and courage of the workers who construct and maintain these structures — working dozens, even hundreds of feet in the air, often in close proximity to live conductors carrying currents that are instantly fatal. I admire them a great deal.

  5. Hi Maggie,

    I enjoyed your Book TV presentation. As a follow up, here’s something that’s causing a bit of controversy in Southeastern Oregon regarding an extension of the regional grid to a potential new wind energy source: 

    Our choices really are getting more and more complicated. Do we save some remnants of Planet Earth intact for future generations? Or do we keep right on constructing our anthropogenic environment until we’ve created an entirely artificial planet for the sake of TV watching and Internet surfing? I suppose you can guess where I come down on this issue. :) 

    All the best, Ray 

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