November 1, 2023
Electricity, that fundamental force of nature we often take for granted, has a history that spans centuries and boasts a cast of brilliant minds and groundbreaking discoveries. It has a story that stretches from the ancient Egyptians' fascination with electric fish in 2750 BCE to Benjamin Franklin's famous kite experiment during a storm. But have we harnessed it in the most efficient way possible, or is there a long road ahead? The answer to this question is as complex as the subject itself.
In this blog, we explore electrical innovation from its naissance, to its anticipated future. Electricity has many pioneers, including Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, Michael Faraday, Nikola Tesla, and more. Now, with sustainability becoming ever more important, new pioneers in electricity are emerging to reduce wasted energy, and improve the electrical infrastructure to align with the energy needs of modern technologies, like LED lighting, digital technologies, and 5G infrastructure. More and more technologies require direct current (DC) power to operate, but get alternating current (AC) power from the grid, so we'll explore how DC distribution could be the key to the future of electricity.
We'll also unravel the intricate workings of the electrical grid, examine Canada’s energy sources, and explore how electricity is generated, transmitted, and ultimately powers our homes, buildings, communication infrastructure, and more.
The discovery of electricity happened over several centuries, going back to Ancient Egypt and the understanding of electric fish, which produced a shocking and numbing effect on skin. Electricity as we know it today wasn’t invented, but discovered by many scientists and philosophers over the years. Michael Faraday is often referred to as the “Father of Electricity”, as his “outstanding discoveries, observations and experiments, laid the foundations for many inventions that we use today,” according to the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET).
Benjamin Franklin is another important figure when it comes to the history of electrical innovation; not only was he one of the Founding Fathers of the USA, he also spent years researching electricity. In 1752, Franklin conducted his famous kite experiment, where he attached a small metal key to a damp kite string and flew the kit during a storm. As a result, electrical sparks jumped down the kite string.
Other notable figures include Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and George Westinghouse. There are two types of electricity commonly used: alternating current (AC) power, and direct current (DC) power, and these were the main figures during the “War of the Currents''. This historical event ultimately determined AC power as the main electricity type to be generated and transmitted throughout our infrastructure. Although power grids and technology have evolved since the end of the War of the Currents in the late 19th century, AC has remained the primary type of electricity generated and transmitted.
In one of our previous blog articles, “4 Reasons Why Power Grids Still Distribute AC Electricity”, we explore why AC is still used, and in “The Benefits of HVDC Transmission Systems”, we question if DC could, or should someday take over.
Although Thomas Edison did not invent the light bulb, his experiments produced the incandescent electric light bulb we are familiar with today. In reality, he built on the work of many inventors that came before him, such as Humphry Davy, who invented the first electric light in 1802. In 1878, Edison founded the Edison Electric Light Company in New York City. He hosted the first public demonstration of his incandescent light bulb in 1879, and founded an electric utility company in the same year to compete with gas light utility providers. His company, Edison Illuminating Company, was the first investor-owned electric utility. Later, he patented a system for distributing DC electricity.
Electricity is more complicated than a key on a kite string. In a nutshell, electricity is created when electrons move between atoms. Every atom is made up of positively and negatively charged particles called protons or electrons. Electrons carry a negative electrical charge and remain inside shells, which can hold a number of electrons. Some shells are close to the nucleus (which sits in the center of an atom), while others are farther away. A shell’s distance from the nucleus determines how many electrons it holds.
Electrons farther from the nucleus have a weaker force of attraction to protons, which carry a positive charge. When a force is applied and the outermost electrons are pushed out of orbit to another atom, they create an electrical charge. We can harness the electrical charge using a conductor (like a copper wire or a magnet) to send it from the electrons to whatever we want to power.
Electricity today is generated and supplied on a massive scale. According to Energy Central, there are 151 electrical utility companies in Canada, and the largest of which (Hydro-Québec) provides electricity to over 4.3 million customers (over 1% of the entire Canadian population). For the most part, public utilities supply power in Canada, but an increasing number of utility providers are privatized; in 2011, a CBC News analysis found that roughly a quarter of Canada's total generation capacity is generated by private firms, and that number was expected to rise to 36% by 2020. In general, however, every province or territory has a provincial regulator that sets the rules and the rates for power generation, transmission, and distribution. Typically, AC power is generated, then transmitted over long distances to cities, municipalities, and regions, and then arrives at your building. DC power is currently only transmitted throughout a power grid when the transmission distance surpasses what’s called a “break-even” distance. At this distance, the cost of the more expensive equipment required for DC transmission can be justified by its efficiency traveling along cables; it suffers less line losses (or voltage drop) than AC at the same voltage.
In most areas, utility companies maintain electrical grid infrastructure and power lines in their service areas. An electrical grid is a connected network of power lines and infrastructure that move electricity from generators to homes and businesses.
The following steps break down how electricity moves from power plants and generators to its ultimate destination:
Although power transmission is generally regulated by the government, there are still ways to take control of how buildings are powered locally. Some buildings are autonomous from the grid through their use of microgrids, for example. Other buildings have local power distribution systems implemented in order to improve the efficiency of their electrical system, and reduce operational costs. A low-voltage direct current (DC) power distribution system can be implemented to improve the efficiency of DC devices, for example. Implementing a DC power distribution system locally saves energy and reduces operational costs for a few reasons. First of all, many of our modern devices, such as LED light fixtures, require DC power, so supplying them directly with DC power eliminates the need for inefficient AC-DC conversions. These conversions are typically inefficient, especially for low-voltage devices, because there are not really any efficiency regulations on drivers, and their integrated converters, when they are managing power for loads under 45 W. Thus, eliminating the need for their usage can save on energy significantly in commercial buildings with hundreds of low-voltage LED fixtures. Additionally, as mentioned previously, DC suffers less line losses than AC power at the same voltage, so when power has to travel from the electrical panel, across a building, less power is lost along cables if they are carrying DC power.
The most recent and revolutionary innovation in local electrical distribution is high voltage DC power distribution. Systems that can provide this, as well as meet additional criteria outlined in the 2023 version of the National Electrical Code (NEC), can be classified as fault-managed power systems. You can read about them on our blog: Fault Managed Power Systems.
Provinces generate electricity from a variety of power sources. According to energyrates.ca the main source for Canada-wide electrical generation is hydro, which generates a whopping 60.1% of Canada’s power.
Other common sources of electricity include:
The history of electricity is a testament to human curiosity and ingenuity. From its early discovery, to the complex electrical grids that power our homes and businesses, the story of electricity is one of continuous exploration and innovation. As we continue to advance in our understanding and use of electricity, we must remain committed to sustainability and efficiency in order to meet the energy needs of the future.
Like most things, electricity had a humble beginning. But, today, it is generated on a massive scale by a variety of power sources, and distributed through electrical grids primarily as AC power. However, if our electrical grids and local power distribution systems were to be massively improved by one change, it would be through the distribution of DC power. Additionally, using renewable sources for power generation, such as wind turbines, hydro, and solar panels, have also been shown to reduce our society’s carbon footprint.
Thank you to Save on Energy for collaborating on this article.