Development of Modern Power System - A Brief Historical Preview
The development of the modern day electrical energy system took a few centuries. Prior to 1800, scientists like William Gilbert, C. A. de Coulomb, Luigi Galvani, Benjamin Franklin, Alessandro Volta etc. worked on electric and magnetic field principles. However, none of them had any application in mind. They also probably did not realize that their work will lead to such an exciting engineering innovation. They were just motivated by the intellectual curiosity.
Between 1800 and 1810 commercial gas companies were formed - first in Europe and then in North America. Around the same time with the research efforts of scientists like Sir Humphrey Davy, Andre Ampere, George Ohm and Karl Gauss the exciting possibilities of the use of electrical energy started to dawn upon the scientific community.
In England, Michael Faraday worked on his induction principle between 1821 and 1831. The modern world owes a lot to this genius. Faraday subsequently used his induction principle to build a machine to generate voltage. Around the same time American engineer Joseph Henry also worked independently on the induction principle and applied his work on electromagnets and telegraphs.
For about three decades between 1840 and 1870 engineers like Charles Wheatstone, Alfred Varley, Siemens brothers Werner and Carl etc. built primitive generators using the induction principle. It was also observed around the same time that when current carrying carbon electrodes were drawn apart, brilliant electric arcs were formed. The commercialization of arc lighting took place in the decade of 1870s. The arc lamps were used in lighthouses and streets and rarely indoor due to high intensity of these lights. Gas was still used for domestic lighting. It was also used for street lighting in many cities.
From early 1800 it was noted that a current carrying conductor could be heated to the point of incandescent. Therefore the idea of using this principle was very tempting and attracted attention. However the incandescent materials burnt very quickly to be of any use. To prevent them from burning they were fitted inside either vacuum globes or globes filled with inert gas. In October 1879 Thomas Alva Edison lighted a glass bulb with a carbonized cotton thread filament in a vacuum enclosed space. This was the first electric bulb that glowed for 44 hours before burning out. Edison himself improved the design of the lamp later and also proposed a new generator design.
The Pearl Street power station in New York City was established in 1882 to sell electric energy for incandescent lighting. The system was direct current three-wire, 220/110 V and supplied Edison lamps for a total power requirement of 30 kW.
The only objective of the early power companies was illumination. However we can easily visualize that this would have resulted in the under utilization of resources. The lighting load peaks in the evening and by midnight it reduces drastically. It was then obvious to the power companies that an elaborate and expensive set up would lay idle for a major amount of time. This provided incentive enough to improve upon the design of electric motors to make them commercially viable. The motors became popular very quickly and were used in many applications. With this the electric energy era really and truly started.
However with the increase in load large voltage and unacceptable drops were experienced, especially at points that were located far away from the generating stations due to poor voltage regulation capabilities of the existing dc networks. One approach was to transmit power at higher voltages while consuming it at lower voltages. This led to the development of the alternating current.
In 1890s the newly formed Westinghouse Company experimented with the new form of electricity, the alternating current. This was called alternating current since the current changed direction in synchronism with the generator rotation. Westinghouse Company was lucky to have Serbian engineer Nicola Tesla with them. He not only invented polyphase induction motor but also conceived the entire polyphase electrical power system. He however had to face severe objection from Edison and his General Electric Company who were the proponents of dc. The ensuing battle between ac and dc was won by ac due to the following factors:
- Transformers could boost ac voltage for transmission and could step it down for distribution.
- The construction of ac generators was simpler.
- The construction of ac motors was simpler. Moreover they were more robust and cheaper than the dc motors even though not very sophisticated.
With the advent of ac technology the electric power could reach more and more people. Also size of the generators started increasing and transmission level voltages started increasing. The modern day system contains hundreds of generators and thousands of buses and is a large interconnected network.