The Odyssey of Electricity – Part 1

Here is a brief history of development of electric power generation. The authors have very creatively sailed from the beginning to today’s status quo – and highlighted the present-day challenges and hinted towards some possible solutions…

The violent spark accompanied by a loud sound across the clouds has always made humans feel overwhelmed and bedazzled. Lightning was given a similar fascinating status in mythologies all over the world as a weapon of gods like Zeus and Indra. Humans gradually started getting familiar with a miniaturized version of electric shocks from certain aquatic animals such as electric eels and electric catfish. Thales of Miletus was one of the earliest well known observers of the magnetic effect of static electricity and in 1600s in his book De magnete, William Gilbert wrote about his study on electricity and magnetism.

Certain discoveries on magnetic and electrical properties were made throughout the industrial era. The arrival of glass friction generators spurred a lot of interest in the field of electricity and is said to have stirred Benjamin Franklin who went on to conduct his famous kite experiment. Alongside these scientific developments, the world was already progressing through the strides of industrial revolution. The financial world was simultaneously undergoing a major transformation with the emergence of private and state banks in the major continents. The arrival of James Watt’s Steam Engine in the middle of the 18th century was one of the major turning points in the area of mechanisation and helped in bringing in further advancements.

These developments gave a major impetus to the growth of industries. Owing to division and specialisation of labour, a certain combination of labour and capital resulted in the most efficient and optimum level of production, which yielded large surplus. The industrial revolution in Europe and America changed the socio-economic milieu. It provided the population with a lot of new jobs in the industries, which caused a migration of labour from agriculture to factories, resulting in new urban regions. An upward surge in the birth rate and a fall in the mortality rate due to advent of vaccines and other developments in the medical field resulted in an unprecedented growth in population and ushered a new slab of educated middle class. These socio-economic developments led to an increase in employment and the creation of demand for capital in the form of infrastructural growth such as creation and maintenance of supply chains, railways and canals for the factories as the prospect of greater returns due to economies of scale was staring down from a yard which seemed achievable. A lot of funds was needed to finance these projects and it piqued a numerous entrepreneurs and bankers. Coal generated power for driving the factories, railways and the ship was already assuming its significance as a major driver of the economy. Coal and other forms of carbon such as coke were the drivers of the cogwheels and the area of mechanisation was constantly being upgraded by exploring methods of increasing efficiency and minimising human intervention.

A new vista

In 1800, Italian scientist Alessandro Volta created a more reliable source of electrical energy – his Voltaic pile- a battery made of alternating layers of zinc and copper disks. British chemist Humphry Davy invented the famous arc lamp in 1808, the first practical electric light Arc, which was utilised by cities to light their streets in the 1870s. They were lit up by large generators. It had certain limitations such as its overwhelming brightness, which prevented it from home usage and the dangerous high voltage it operated on making it hazardous for those who were in its proximity.

Electricity in India

India got its first electric light on January 7, 1879, in the city of Kolkata (erstwhile Calcutta) followed by Bombay in 1882. Arc lighting was superseded by Incandescent lightning which was invented by Thomas Alva Edison and Joseph Swan, with the former being more successful due to his usage of thinner filament. Edison’s company manufactured a lot of bulbs and marketed it around the cities in the USA – as he grasped the potential of the market of electrifying the residence and businesses of customers. His utility worked with direct current which was also used for storing energy in batteries and running electric motors. However, the limited transmission distance due to its low voltage of 110 volts was proving to be an impediment for DC to gain further ground in urban areas as power stations had to be constructed right in the middle of the residential areas. The Pearl Street Station was set up in 1882 by Edison, which was a full scale Central power station powered by Coal. Central Power stations were also making their ways in UK from 1881 – and London got its first station in 1882. The West always had the requirement for heating in their nail biting winters. Boilers were installed to provide steam for residential heating purposes. With some innovations, part of the steam was later utilised for electricity generation

Birth of electrical machinery

A proper analysis on the conjoined feature of Electricity and Magnetism was finally demonstrated by Hans Christian Oersted in 1820 and in 1831, Michael Faraday and Joseph Henry invented the primitive electric motor, after documenting the generation of electric current by moving an metallic wire near a magnate, the basis of producing electricity in a generator. Z.T. Gramme designed the first practical generator. The Gramme machine was sold in large numbers in 1870. It had the potential to supply a steady direct current to power motors. The Hungarian ZBD team at Ganz works in 1884 designed the prototype of a high efficiency closed core shunt connection transformer – and it gave AC the advantage of being transmitted to larger distances relative to DC by the process of stepping up voltage for transmission over long distances and stepping down to a lower voltage upon reaching the end user for residential and business uses.

War of the currents

This subsequently brought the ‘War Of Currents’ in the USA between George Westinghouse’s AC and Thomas Edison’s DC business over capturing the American electrical power market. After a long tussle and endless controversies, the fifteen electric companies merged into two wiz General Electric and Westinghouse with alternating current triumphing over direct current.

Generation & transmission

Development in the field of poduction and transmission of electricity was pacing up and coal assumed the significance of a national asset. Load factor was a cause of concern amongst the electrical companies as there were spikes of electricity demand in the early hours of work in the morning and in evening when electrical lights were turned on. As a result, the companies used to skip daytime service until the beginning of 20th century. Certain buildings such as large hotels, offices and factories had their own power generation source. To mitigate this issue, it was necessary for the load factor to increase, so that it becomes economically viable for the power companies to run their operations throughout the day.

The concept of electrical grid and their inter connectivity was experimented upon. The standardization of UK’s electric supply and the creation of an integrated grid in the winter of 1938 due to an imbalance of power generating capacity between the northern and southern parts of the country proved to be helpful, especially during the wars and cold gales. Coal continued to assume and increase its importance. Use of pulverised coal improved coal combustion. The 40 MW Lakeside Power Plant in Wisconsin was the first plant to burn pulverised coal. Gradually a lot of achievements were seen throughout the early and middle part of 20th century. The Unit 6 at the Philo Power plant of Ohio was the first commercial super critical steam electricity generating unit in the world. However, the depleting coal stock caught attention in the 1950s and shortages were forecasted within a decade in the UK. Alternative sources of fuel were being explored. Gas power had taken off in the States after the second world war with GE installing its first commercial gas turbine for power generation in 1949. The advent of hydroelectricity in 1880s in the States and Switzerland’s first pumped storage plant in 1909 exhibited the potential of alternative options for power generation. India had its first hydroelectric installation in 1897 at Sidrapong for the Darjeeling municipality. In 1888, Charles Bush from Ohio constructed a 60 feet wind turbine, which spun a 12kW dynamo connected to some batteries in his basement and upon his success, numerous installations of such turbines spurred up in the Midwest.  Further interest and development of the wind sector were stirred after the oil crisis of 1970s.

Development of atomic energy

The concept of harnessing energy contained in atoms was making rounds and some developments were taking place in labs by the end of 19th century and the world’s first nuclear reactor was made in 1941 by Fermi in Chicago, although most of the research in atomic energy was initially utilised by the US govt for the most abominable purpose of creation and dropping of nuclear bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Only after the war did the US encourage nuclear energy development for peaceful civilian purposes. In Idaho, December 20, 1951, the first reactor to produce electricity was made. Soviet Union was also pursuing a massive and growing nuclear power program for heat and electricity generation. The nuclear industry grew rapidly in 1960s and 70s, although its history was blemished by the catastrophic events of Three Mile Islands and Chernobyl. In recent years, the Fukushima incident of 2011 due to a massive earthquake of 9.0 Magnitude on Richter scale caused a massive jolt radioactive contamination of the surrounding area.

Background of solar energy

Conversion of solar energy into electric is almost a 200 years’ old practice. Edmond Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic cells in 1839. Subsequent developments took place throughout the 19th century with the discovery of the photoconductivity of Selenium in 1882. Solar cells made of Silicon were commercially produced after it was discovered that silicon had greater efficiency than Selenium and after 1970s, work on increasing efficiency of solar cells begun and the possibility of solar cells being a sensible and clean alternative of energy generation was realised.

Development of Indian power sector

India had a total installed capacity of 1,362 MW when it was free from the British rule in 1947. The country had its first coal power plant installed in Kolkata (erstwhile Calcutta) in 1899, which had a capacity of 1 MW. The Hydel installation at Sindrapong had a capacity of 0.13MW. The country had a concerning dearth of infrastructure for the growth of power sector and providing electricity to the majority of the population, which was un-electrified  was also a huge task and required immediate attention. Jawaharlal Nehru called Dams the temples of modern India and very rightly so, the potential of dams generating electricity while simultaneously ensuring irrigation to the surrounding areas proved to be the starting point of power sector development in India. The government invested heavily on creation of dams, geological survey for finding coal mines and other potential resources for energy creation and on the expansion of railways and roads. This also provided large employment opportunities, which assisted in cutting down the poverty level, creation of new urban places and driving the primary sector, which was the largest portion of the economy.

The country had isolated city-based electrical systems and eventually it adopted the grid system in 1961. The interconnected grid system of 5 regional grids for enabling transmission of surplus electricity between the states in each region.  In 1975, the National Thermal Power Corporation Private Limited was founded by the then PM Indira Gandhi under the Companies act of 1956 and was renamed “National Thermal Power Corporation Limited.” It was engaged in power generation, transmission and distribution to SEBs in India. The company made magnificent strides in the sphere of power generation and by 1997, it achieved the milestone of generating 100 billion units of electricity in a year. The company changed its name to NTPC Limited in 2005 for its venture into hydro and wind power generation projects along with backward integration by coal mining.

The Power Grid Corporation of India Limited was created in 1989 – and it took over transmission assets of fellow power industry entities such as NTPC, NHPC, NEEPCO, NLD etc., and was tasked with maintaining and monitoring transmission of bulk power across different states of India. Since 1947, there has been a constant growth in the installed capacity of power generation with an average of around 12-15% annual growth up to 1980s – and at around 5% from 1990 to 2012. Growth in electrical consumption is also worth noting with the emergence of domestic and agricultural sector alongside industrial sector being the primary consumer till date.

The agricultural and industrial sector were the major consumers of electricity. The ascent of agriculture sector’s share from around 3% in 1960 to 17.7% in the present indicates the progress in capital investment and mechanisation of agricultural practices, which resulted in greater yield of crops and better storage facilities. Similarly, the growing shares of domestic sector (around 24% currently) is a positive sign of economic development and human welfare. However, the distribution aspect of electricity is still a large leakage of money in the system. Most of the electricity services are provided through a regulatory system with controlled mechanisms through tariffs, cost plus pricing, long term PPAs etc – and have proved to be inefficient as there had been no incentive to encourage efficiency. The country has almost sufficient power generation capacity at present – but till date, a significant portion of population is yet to receive proper electrification and almost 0.07% of Indian household have no access to electricity.

Challenges in progress front

One of the largest obstacles of power sector is revenue collection, which has been plagued by irregular payments of dues by big industries, businesses and influential consumers due to unfair political and sociological advantages. Small consumers from both domestic, commercial and agricultural sector end up bearing the brunt through frequent power cuts and atrocious billing. A lot of operating inefficiencies result in an ever-growing aggregate technical and commercial losses. Power distributors often end up failing to fulfil the purchase agreements and the government has to step in to finance the debts.

                                       …To be continued




Rwitorshi Probho Roy
is an under graduate student in Economics in Calcutta University, he has wide interest in Socio-Economic issues.




Dr. Bibhu Prasad Rath
a graduate in Mechanical Engineering with Intermediate course work from ICWA and M.Tech from IIT Delhi. He has also done PhD (in Business Administration) from Aligarh Muslim University. He is currently holding the post of Additional General Manager in Engineering Division of NTPC Ltd.

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