History of Electricity in the United States

Ruslan Iskhakov
December 9, 2013

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2013

Edison's Pearl Station: DC Era

Fig. 1: Electricity Generation by Source, 1950-2010. [9]

The predecessor of all electricity system is an invention of light bulb by Thomas Edison, demonstrated to public in December 1979. However, complete system of generation and distribution had been required to spread out the technology. Thus, the history of U.S. Electricity starts by opening of the Pearl Street station in lower Manhattan at 1882 (operated by Tomas Edison's team). [1] The station used one direct current generator (27 tons) and provide 100 Kw, enough to supply 1,200 bulbs. Despite high demand and high prices for electricity, the station was money-losing business for several years, mainly because of high initial cost and limitation of direct current (DC) itself, such as very expensive electricity translation over long distances and inability to provide high-voltage electricity required by industry. Edison's Pearl Station converted less than 2.5% of chemical energy of coal to electric current and required approximately 139 kBTU/kWh. [2]

Westinghouse's Niagara Power Plant: AC Era

In 1886 the first commercial AC (alternating current) power system in the United States was built. This system was designed by G.Westinghouse, W.Stanley and O. Shallenberger. [3] The invention of AC induction motor (by N.Tesla) in 1888 and Tesla coil in 1891 allowed long-distance transmission of electricity. [4] Those inventions lead to construction of Westinghouse's Niagara Power Plant (1896) - the next milestone is the history of U.S. Electricity. The Power Plant had 37 MW power output, several hundreds times more powerful than Edison's Pear Station in 1882. Additionally, it had 25 miles transmission line at high-voltage (11,000 volts) to Buffalo city, ending era of DC. At 1896 the coal-plant efficiency slightly improved to 3.8% (93 kBTU/kWh). [2,5]

Electricity Is a Public Regulated Business: PUHCA (1935)

The invention of induction motor revolutionize all industries and lead to invention of power washing machine (1907), vacuum cleaners (1908) and household refrigerators (1912). All of these inventions led to a greater demand and helped to spread-out of electricity. [3] Thus, electricity became large industry with high impact on the whole country. The Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935 (PUHCA) was passed by U.S. Congress to facilitate regulation of electric utilities, this law was in action till February, 2006. [6] What is the importance of PUHCA? It protects the financial health of public utilities that supply out electricity and retail natural gas, by doing following: (1) limit the geographic spread of utility holding companies; (2) control amount of debt, loans; (3) regulates cross-subsidies of unregulated business to regulated business (4) limit common ownership of both electric and natural gas. [7] Overall, it reduces concentration of economic power in just a few companies, and, thus, electricity became regulate business in the United States. For example, PUHCA does not allow Chevron or Exxon Mobil to control electricity unless they gave up they own petroleum business. By 1940 the efficiency of electricity generation improved to significant 17% (21 kBTU/kWh).

Fig. 2: Annual installed capacity of the United States. Data from EIA AER, 2012 [11]

Oil Embargo in 1973

The Oil Crisis (October 1973 - March 1974) caused by oil embargo of Organization of Arab Petroleum Countries has significant impact on oil consumption and efficiency of the electric plants. The crisis showed great dependence of Unites States and other western countries on oil price and led to greater interest interest in renewable energy and induced research in solar and wind power. As shown on Fig. 1, petroleum consumption for electricity at 1970 was roughly 15%, decreased to less than 1% in 2010. Despite high-price in 70's petroleum still used for electricity supply since gas was in short supply. High-prices in petroleum stimulate growing number of gas-fired plant (24% in 1970). However, they adoption of Fuel Use Act (1978) prohibiting new power generators to use gas, since it was considered as a diminishing resources. Therefore, the number of gas-fired power plant reduces to 12% in 1990. [8]

Clean Air Act: Modern Era

There are many additional laws has a great impact on electricity industry, such as Clean Water Act (1972), The Public Utilities Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA, 1978), Clean Air Act (additions, 1990), The National Energy Policy Act (1992). For the sake of simplicity, only Clean Air Act is considered. This Act was passed to protect the public from airborne contaminants (1967). [9] The major amendments in 1990 established a national permit program for stationary sources. All of this decreased amount of coal-fired power plant and switched go gas, nuclear and wind-fired power plants.

In the 1990s gas became more popular as technology improved, and as electricity producers required to meet stricter Clean Air Requirements. From that time, gas-fired power plant reached 25% by 2011. Nuclear Power come online significantly late (1980s), however, construction of new nuclear power almost stopped at 2000's due to many additional regulations. Moreover, Fukushima accident (2011) question the future of nuclear energy in the United States. [8,10] Last decade wind energy become very promising source of energy with 30GW installed capacity. [11] The modern gas combined-cycle power plant reached very high-efficiency (60% or 7 kBTU/kWh), 3 times more efficient than those in 1935.


Both technologies and regulations determine todays U.S. Electricity system. Fig. 2 shows history of installed capacity of United States with denoted milestones. While very complicated and regulated industry, the U.S. electric system remains one the most efficient in the world.

© Ruslan Iskhakov. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] C. Sulzberger, "Pearl Street in Miniature: Models of the Electric Generating station," IEEE Power and Energy 11 No. 2, 76 (2013).

[2] V. Smil, Energy Transitions: History, Requirements, Prospects (Praeger, 2010).

[3] M. Klein, The Power Makers: Steam, Electricity, and the Men Who Invented Modern America (Bloomsbury Press, 2008).

[4] W. B. Carlson, Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age (Princeton U. Press, 2013).

[5] C. R. Christian and J. Gardner, "National Register of Historic Places Inventory - Nomination: Adams Power Plant Transformer House", American Association for State and Local History, 9 Sep 78.

[6] "Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935: 1935-1992," U.S. Energy Information Administration, January 1993.

[7] L. Hargis, "PUHCA for Dummies: An Electricity Blackout and Energy Bill Primer," Public Citizen's Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program, September 2003.

[8] "Annual Energy Review 2010," U.S. Energy Information Administration, DOE/EIA-0384(2010) October 2011, Table 8.2.

[9] "The Clear Air Act," 42 United States Code 7101-7626, 24 Feb 04.

[10] D. Normile, "Cooling a Hot Zone," Science 339, 1028 (2013).

[11] "Annual Energy Review 2011," U.S. Energy Information Administration, DOE/EIA-0384(2011), September 2012, Table 8.11b.