Electricity has always fascinated humankind. While ancient civilizations had not harnessed the power of electricity, the imposing power of lightning captivated their citizens, who often attributed it to divine anger. Ancient Greeks credited Zeus, while Vedic tradition associated lightning with Indra. And even though it would take millennia before the first public electricity supply, there’s no denying its power across all of recorded history.
Americans have their own lightning mythology: Benjamin Franklin’s famous kite experiment in 1752. As the legend goes, one stormy night, Ben Franklin strung a metal key to a metal kite wire and captured lightning as it struck. From here, the metal lightning rod was born and opened the floodgates of discovery. In the 100 years following the experiment, groundbreaking inventions such as the first battery and the telegraph were invented.
Then, in 1879, there was a lightbulb moment – the first lightbulb moment – as Thomas Edison successfully designed the first working lightbulb. The rest, as they say, is history. Shortly after, Edison established the first central power station in New York City, and by 1925, half of all homes in the United States were illuminated by Edison’s groundbreaking innovation.
Available at a flick of a switch, we often take electricity for granted, forgetting that it is the lifeblood of American society and the economy.
Electricity starts to play its role in your life from the moment you’re born – silent and invisible but omnipresent. Were you to somehow transport one of those ancient Greeks to modern-day America, electricity and all it does would be nothing short of miraculous in their eyes.
It is the single ingredient that touches every aspect of our lives. Were it not for electricity you would not be reading this article; you would not be able to access the Internet, connect with people, or voice opinions on social media. There’s a very good chance that the majority of everyday products around you would not exist, and if they did, they wouldn’t be nearly as refined as they are.
Your job, your commute to and from work, your telecommute, time with your family, calls home, baseball, football and basketball games, heating, cooling, food production, healthcare, transportation, manufacturing, national security, the economy: all enabled by electricity.
Yet, it is electricity’s ubiquity that perhaps poses its most significant challenge. At its founding, the Pearl Street Station, America’s first commercial power plant, was a coal-powered facility. Coal remained the dominant source of electricity, as technology transitioned from steam-powered to electric and other mechanics, through most of the last century. This dominance came at a price to the environment and communities.
Today, every kilowatt-hour of electricity generated produces 0.99 pounds of Carbon Dioxide. For context, running an hour-long cycle on an average dishwasher would consume a kilowatt-hour of electricity.
In the hyper-electrified world we live in, it simply isn’t feasible to ask people to switch off completely, and with electrification extending into mobility, there’s little chance of a reduction in demand. In fact, electricity demand and generation will only grow over the next few decades, and whether or not its environmental footprint will grow proportionately, depends on our choices as a nation.
Fortunately, a number of states, utilities, corporations, and ordinary consumers, are making the right choice and investing in technology that reduces the environmental and social cost of producing electricity. At the moment, 23 states and the District of Columbia have implemented emissions targets, while an estimated 25 percent of the Fortune 500 have made credible commitments to source cleaner electricity.
This directly translates into more significant investment in renewable energy generation from sources such as large-scale solar. Greater investment, in turn, translates into scale, which leads to lower costs. So while coal may have dominated electricity generation for a large part of the last century, power generation from renewable sources surpassed coal generation for the first time in American history in April 2019, thanks to lower costs. Unsurprisingly, this was matched by a drop in US emissions in 2019.
And the cleaner electricity trend is set to continue, even as public support grows. A survey of over 1,200 Americans conducted for First Solar revealed that more than eight of ten (84 percent) respondents supported expanding solar energy to address US energy needs. By comparison, only 20 percent supported expanding coal-powered generation.
So while electricity is the lifeblood of America, it is cleaner, renewably-generated electricity that will truly energize our nation.