Edison’s microgrid: The Current War and the future of energy

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When you hear the word microgrid, you may think of a futuristic electrical system powered by solar panels.

Yet microgrids have been around since the days of Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. Their legacies live on in the companies from whom we buy electricity — Consolidated Edison — and cars — Tesla Motors.

But it’s not just their names that have stayed with us over the last 130 years. It’s also their electrical distribution designs. It’s a testament to just how outdated the U.S. electrical grid has become.

In this post, I’ll lay out how the story told in the new film, The Current War, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, covers how Edison and Tesla’s technology remain with us today, and how we should move beyond them with digitized, renewable-energy microgrids.

A grid so old, even Edison would recognize it

The Current War details the public feud between Thomas Edison, a proponent of DC power, and George Westinghouse, who bought some of Tesla’s patents to become a major investor in AC power. The competition would leave an unruly elephant, a handful of dogs, and one prisoner dead. [1]

I won’t spoil the movie by telling you who won. I bring this up because its implications persist to this day. In fact, my colleague, Aamir Paul, has said that Edison would easily recognize today’s grid. Contrast that with telecommunications, another key technology developed in the late 1800s, which now looks completely different in today’s digital world. 

The AC-powered U.S. grid settled into Westinghouse’s preferred model of centralized generation and long transmission lines. Although this centralized model presents efficiency benefits, it also has drawbacks. In California, high-voltage power lines cross large swaths of arid forests, creating wildfire risk during dry, windy conditions.

A decentralized model, like the one favored by Edison, would co-locate generation with production. This approach minimizes long power lines and widespread outages. It’s a model that makes more sense now that we have the technology to digitize, decarbonize, and decentralize our electrical infrastructure. We’re at a crucial moment in the grid’s technological evolution: Never in the history of the grid have market players been able to operate a fact-based system in real-time. With this system in place, we can together transform the way we produce, transmit, and consume energy. One key solution in this transformation? Microgrids.

Microgrids and megatrends: The case for change

It’s getting increasingly difficult to leave the current electrical grid well enough alone. Widespread outages in California this month are leaving millions without power. And it’s not just the West Coast: This summer, two major outages in New York brought down the grid in the city where the electrical age began.

As climate change and aging infrastructure put more stress on the grid, it’s only getting harder to keep the grid online.

Ironically, the best way forward is to look back at Edison’s first central electrical station, built in 1882. The Pearl Street Station was essentially an early-version microgrid, delivering electricity via reciprocating steam engines to a one-quarter square mile (0.65 km) area in Manhattan’s business district.[2]

It’s important to note that we don’t want to build microgrids that Edison would recognize.

There are different types of microgrids: those that run on fossil fuels, and those that run on solar, wind, and other renewables. There are simple microgrids that involve little more than a generator and a few pieces of electrical equipment, and those that harness advanced digital solutions to deliver intelligence and two-way power flows.

The benefits of microgrids: Why do we need them?

Simple diesel-based microgrids have been around for decades. If we’re going to take on climate change and aging infrastructure, we need a new model: digitized, renewable-energy microgrids. It’s this new approach that would surprise Edison the most.

Diesel generators can be more expensive to operate during long outages, and the resulting emissions are less sustainable. Digitized renewable-energy microgrids, on the other hand, deliver clean energy while enhancing resiliency and reliability. That’s the essential reason why we need microgrids: To keep homes and businesses powered during outages using renewable energy.

Energy as a service and new financing models

Although it may seem like renewable-energy microgrids involve a larger capital investment, that’s all changing. New business models such as energy-as-a-service eliminate upfront costs and shift the technical and regulatory responsibilities to the energy service provider. Energy-as-a-service, as offered by companies such as AlphaStruxure, are making microgrids accessible to commercial and industrial companies.

The future of energy

In The Current War, Edison and Westinghouse battle over their competing visions for the future of energy. It’s that same spirit of innovation that drives my advocacy for decentralized, digitized, and decarbonized energy. Except, in our case, we aren’t going to electrocute any elephants.

And be sure to check out our report on the future of energy, The Digital Grid Unleashed.


[1] Smithsonian (2011). “Edison vs. Westinghouse: A shocking rivalry.” https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/edison-vs-westinghouse-a-shocking-rivalry-102146036/
[2] Engineering and Technology History Wiki. “Milestones: Pearl Street Station, 1882.” https://ethw.org/Milestones:Pearl_Street_Station,_1882

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  • Steve Maling

    5 years ago

    A good book about “The Current War” is called Edison & the Electric Chair – A story of light and death by Mark Essig.

  • Cynthia Reed

    5 years ago

    Interesting article especially due to our current grid. The movie is a “must-see” for those of us in the industry. It was well done and interesting.

  • Really interested in what you said about Edison and Tesla. This means I am going to look into this more.

  • I hope the war ends soon. It’s very unfair and irresponsible to fight over something like energy.

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