People in most countries take electricity for granted these days. Through its many applications in lighting, appliances, computers and so on, it has affected our lives so much that it is difficult to imagine life without it. But how many of us have thought about the evolution of electricity and the scientists and engineers who brought it about?
It is not possible to pinpoint the time when man recognised the phenomenon of electricity though people were aware of shocks from electric fish in the Nile and static electricity in rubbed amber rods around 600 BC. The discovery in 1936 of the “Baghdad Battery”, a form of galvanic cell, though controversial, is thought to be even much older in time.
Perhaps for the first time in 1600 the English scientist William Gilbert made a careful study of electricity and magnetism and he coined the name “electricus” from “electron” which is the Greek name for amber. In the same year, Otto von Guericke invented a machine that produced static electricity or the first electric generator. The English words “electric” and “electricity” first appeared in print in 1646. In June 1752, Benjamin Franklin showed that lightning was electrical in nature by almost electrocuting himself flying a kite in a thunderstorm. Many scientists contributed to the evolution of electricity during the early years of the 19th century such as Volta, Orsted, Ampere, Faraday and Ohm.
In the late 19th century, fundamental progress in electrical engineering was achieved through the work of Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, Ernst Werner von Siemens and others, such that the practical application of electricity became possible and the names of companies established by these engineers are still with us to this day.
Driven by the need for lighting, Thomas Edison in 1879 was able to produce a reliable, long-lasting electric light bulb and he demonstrated its use in New York. The electric generator was invented before that and it is again Edison who built the first power station in 1879 that could power 5,000 lights for 85 consumers in a single square mile.
The invention of transformers, alternating current machines and steam turbine generators followed where large amounts of electricity could be produced and transmitted long distance and in 1893 Westinghouse used an alternating current system to light the Chicago World’s Fair after winning “The War of Currents” from Edison who believed in direct current applications.
The majority of large towns in America and Europe began using electricity for lighting but other applications quickly followed in refrigeration and air conditioning (1911) and the electric motor became an essential part of many appliances to this day.
The development of steels and machines that could tolerate higher steam temperature and pressure followed and ever increasing amounts of electricity were produced for industry, transportation as well as households. This has also helped the development of nuclear power where in 1954 the world’s first nuclear power plants in Russia and in 1957 in America started operations.
The story does not end and progress in electricity generation, transmission and distribution is ongoing. The evolution in electronics, an offshoot from electrical engineering has enabled better control and measurement which are essential for running large scale plants and networks. At the same time the aspiration for higher efficiencies has become increasingly important due to the high share of fuel cost in final electricity prices and, therefore, combined cycles (gas turbine plus steam turbine) were introduced which are far more efficient than single cycles (gas or steam turbines).
Electricity demand is growing higher than any other form of energy. According to the International Energy Agency it will grow by 70 per cent in the period 2010 – 2035 where four fifth of the growth is in developing countries especially China, India and the Middle East. World generating capacity is to grow from 5,429 to 9,340 GW in the period 2011–2035. The investment required is staggering at $9.7 trillion for generation and $7.2 trillion for transmission and distribution (as per 2011 dollar value).
Although the share of gas in fuelling future units is increasing, coal will remain the main fuel in electricity generation but its share will drop from 41 to 33 per cent in the period. Oil has lost a lot of its share since 1973 and is only 6 per cent now and dropping.
In the Middle East, electricity generation capacity was 239 GW in 1985 or 2.4 per cent of world’s. The growth has been so high that in 2011 capacity has risen to 912 GW or just over 4 per cent of world’s with gas share rising rapidly against a declining oil share in the fuel.
There is every reason why we should continue to improve electricity supply with efficient distribution, reasonable price and reliable generation with due consideration to the environment as life without electricity will send us back at least 200 years.