Three hanging light bulbs

On occasion, Great Plains Institute (GPI) staff like to venture into the world of pop culture, especially when that pop culture has to do with our favorite topic—energy. Some GPI staff attended the recent film The Current War, which dives into the origins of our modern electric grid system and the inventors, investors, and engineers that made it happen. Two of our staff members shared some thoughts about that battle over who would create the modern electric grid and the critical work ahead to transform the grid for a low-carbon future.

“How We Got Here,” by Katelyn Bocklund, program manager with GPI’s Transportation and Fuels Program

 “You’re fired. There’s never going to be anything named Tesla ever again.” Womack to Nikola Tesla in The Current War

Driving home after the movie on the brightly lit LED highways of the Twin Cities in my car powered 100 percent by electricity (including from our headquarters’ solar panels), I caught myself gaining a larger appreciation for the dramatic chain of events that led to these modern technologies.

While our lives would grind to a halt without electricity, The Current War takes us back to a time in the late 1800s when much of the US relied on kerosene and gas to light homes. Following the invention of the incandescent lightbulb by Edison, he and Westinghouse compete to be the first to bring widespread electrification across the US—Edison with the one-way direct current (DC) and Westinghouse with the two-way alternating current (AC). Meanwhile, Tesla fights to work with either of them to bring his AC motor to life.  

Both men view their method as superior to the other, with Edison prioritizing safety and Westinghouse prioritizing scale and cost-effectiveness. Edison goes to great lengths to demonstrate that AC is dangerous. In his quest for his current to win the war, he covertly helps develop the deadliest use for electricity, the very thing he was fighting against, which puts him in an interesting predicament. 

While the focus of the movie is the battle between Edison and Westinghouse, there’s a powerful message toward the end that states by not raising fences, we can have larger gardens. In other words, working together instead of creating divisions produces the richest outcome. And, that’s what GPI is all about—engaging and collaborating with people, organizations, and communities on energy solutions to bring about a better future.

With our stakeholders and partners, we continue to improve upon the electric system that the visionaries at the center of this story helped to create and that is central to virtually every aspect of our modern life. We are taking the best of that legacy and transforming it for the next generation, working to make electricity cleaner and more efficient. 

The Current War serves as a reminder of how much our world has changed in the last 150 years, but it also seeks to inspire us to continue working together to perform remarkable transformations and improve our world.  

“The Electric View,” by Maggie Kristian, electricity policy analyst with GPI’s Electricity and Efficiency Programs

“Automation, transportation, communication. And the man that controls that current controls that future.” Benedict Cumberbatch as Thomas Edison in The Current War 

While George Westinghouse’s AC current electrifies our grid today, that future was anything but assured at the beginning of The Current War. Thomas Edison and his system were quite famous at the time, and direct current was the early standard for electricity in the US, but Westinghouse and the AC system competed on cost and scalability.

As both parties strove to dominate the industry, electricity began to sweep into towns across the nation. Electricity made it to Minnesota, where our main GPI offices are located, in 1882 (although a strong urban-rural divide in accessibility remained for many years after). Eventually, the Westinghouse AC system won out because of its long range.

The original AC electric system relieved some of the inconvenience of burning coal by allowing the generation of power to be centralized to power plants, rather than building a coal burning generator every mile or so within a city. This meant less occupied space, less coal residue, and cleaner neighborhoods. However, in the midst of a rapidly changing climate, we now know that burning fossil fuels have far greater consequences than just soot, and that greatly accelerated and thoughtful movement towards a decarbonized grid is essential.

The development of renewable energy resources, like wind and solar, shows that we can generate carbon-free electricity. However, renewable power generation isn’t currently as available to generate power throughout the day as traditional energy sources like coal or gas. To make carbon-free energy accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week, we need to find a way to bridge the gap between times that renewable resources are producing more than enough energy and times that the sun has set or wind has stopped blowing.

In short, the new journey for the grid is less about how far we can move current, and more about how to keep that current, well, current. If you’re having trouble saying that three times fast, think of the Edison /Westinghouse war as about where and how far they could get electric current, and one of the key modern challenges around decarbonization as about when we can get renewable energy to users across the nation.

Analysis shows we can decarbonize most of the electricity system by 2050 using today’s technologies (80-95 percent in the Midcontinent region), and there are many innovators and emerging technologies racing to find even better ways to move energy through time and make a zero-carbon electric system a reality. Solar and wind generation could be designed with additional capacity to meet demand at all times of the day, even if that means curtailment, which would enable renewable generators to provide enough energy even when operating at less than full capacity. Electricity system operators across the US are working to create new market rules for hybrid resources, paving the way for batteries paired with wind or solar that could store their excess energy during peak production to be released when needed. An immense, nationwide “super-grid” might be able bridge the United States across the Rocky Mountains, allowing extra wind power in the Midwest to be sent to the Atlantic coast when it’s calm there, or for excess California solar power to be sent east where the sun has already set. Even giant cranes can store and generate electricity using blocks of concrete (you can read more about that in out-of-the-box option in this Wired article). And those are just some of the ideas and tools under consideration.

Luckily, unlike with Edison and Westinghouse, the current electric grid isn’t a two player show anymore, but an international effort that can be tackled collaboratively with utilities, generators, regulators, government at all levels, and other stakeholders. In The Current War, Edison remarks that “automation, transportation, communication… the man that controls that current, controls that future.” While the technology has evolved, the sentiment remains true; the future of energy is in our control. And when we can create better energy, we can create a better world.

To read more about the work GPI is doing around electricity, check out our stakeholder facilitation on important energy issues for the Midwest Governors Association, e21 Initiative,  and more on our website.

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