Reprising Edison v. Westinghouse and ‘The War of the Currents’

Solar energy is one of smallest parts of our electricity system, but there are strong indications that could be changing.

“If you look at data on the growth rate of solar…it’s almost a flat wall in terms of a spike,” said Ryan Pletka, who works with infrastructure consulting firm Black and Veatch.

A rapidly increasing number of U.S. households are installing rooftop solar panels, and that’s foreshadowing a wider debate over the future role of our traditional electric grid. Ironically, it is a debate we’ve pretty much already had.

Employees with Namaste Solar install mounting brackets for a new rooftop system in Boulder, Colorado.

Dan Boyce / Inside Energy

Employees with Namaste Solar install mounting brackets for a new rooftop system in Boulder, Colorado.

In the 1880s, heralded inventor Thomas Edison was locked in a bitter battle with engineer and entrepreneur George Westinghouse over how this new invention of electric power should spread across the country, a battle commonly known as The War of the Currents.

Edison, who invented the very concept of electric power distribution, called for a decentralized, widely distributed power system with many  small power plants providing low-voltage direct current (DC) electricity to nearby homes and businesses.

Westinghouse, working with inventor Nikola Tesla, advocated the use of high-voltage alternating current (AC) from a centralized system of large industrial power plants transmitted out to a spiderweb of power lines connecting the entire country.

Westinghouse, AC and the centralized system eventually won out, and that’s more or less the model of the grid we have used ever since. It is a stable, reliable, cheap system, currently threatened by rooftop solar.

A little bit. Maybe. Eventually.

Inside Energy’s complete series, The Solar Challenge, can be found here.

 

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