Ed note: This post originally appeared on the original home of Anthropology in Practice. It seemed appropriate to share in light of the SciAm cities feature - particularly as I'm traveling. See you Friday!

As the sun sinks over the Hudson River, New York City doesn’t power down. Lights flicker on and soon the famous skyline is lit in a blaze that defies the natural clock. But few stop to consider where and how that electricity comes from and what it means when it isn’t there. That is such a frightening consideration that we prefer to pretend it isn’t a possibility.

New York City owes a debt of thanks to Thomas Edison for the brilliance that the skyline projects at night. He is the reason that we have the power to be the city that never sleeps. And it’s not because he invented the light bulb—he didn’t. Rather, it is because Edison gave us the grid that serves as the basis for powering the city, even today. He saw the big picture. But when was the last time we really considered the grid’s potential to support our growing needs? Are we capable of seeing the big picture now?

An article by Joel Achenbach in National Geographic described the present American electrical grid as a kludge: “an awkward, inelegant contraption that somehow works.” It’s outdated; it isn’t suited to meet our power demands. And we are a power hungry society with an endless supply of gadgets that demand to be fed on current. We march around with chargers at our disposal for laptops and cellphones—I have both in my bag and I admit that I use them regularly. When our devices die, we become restless for power, expressing disbelief that power is denied to us. We’re a productive society, we tell ourselves. We need our power.

In 2003 the eastern seaboard learned how weaknesses can compromise the grid. I remember that August afternoon well partly because later that night it gave me the opportunity to see the moon as I had never seen it previously. (It was so darned bright. I was awed, and the memory stuck.) I was free from classes and was enjoying an early dinner with S when a hum filled the air. We looked at each other in confusion and then everything shut off—including the fan that we were using to ward off the heat. “The power’s out,” I remember saying. “That’s weird,” said S. He checked the fuse box. No luck. “I think it’s the whole block,” I said. “What? No way.” We went outside to find our neighbors doing the same. “Do you have power?” “No, we don’t either.” And we stood there, unsure what to do with ourselves. S and I passed part of the night on our garage roof. We actually enjoyed ourselves, but that’s beside the point. The point is that our grid was never meant to support the network it currently covers.

At 3 pm on September 4th, 1882, Thomas Edison unveiled a system for commercial electric lighting and power in lower Manhattan—the first of it’s kind in the US. He threw the switch in JP Morgan’s office. Good marketing: Electricity would be good for businesses. This demand drove the construction of the Pearl Street Station and ushered in the electric utility industry. Edison had found a means of successfully competing with gas lighting, which was already established. His plan featured a reliable source of central power generation that could be safely and efficiently distributed.

But it was far from easy going. Edison needed to figure out how to generate enough power. He wanted to use a generator (a dynamo), but at the time, there weren’t any in existence powerful enough to serve his needs. Edison did what he knew how to do: he developed the ‘“Jumbo” dynamo, a 27-ton machine that produced 100 kilowatts, enough to power 1200 lights.” It took six such generators to power the square mile of lower Manhattan the Pearl Street Plant Serviced.

And people were yearning for power:

By October 1, 1882, less than a month after the opening the station, Edison Electric boasted 59 customers. By December 1, it had 203, and a year later, 513.

Today, New York’s grid is extensive. It spans 10,775 miles and serves more than 19 million residents. But the issues that Edison faced haunt us still. Generating enough power remains paramount. According to Achenbach, we still don’t have an efficient means of storing energy. It must be consumed as it is produced, and so creating enough electricity to meet demand—particularly on a hot summer day—is a challenge. But Edison also had to deal with the issue of actually supplying the electricity his customers wanted. He managed to convince the Mayor to allow him to install 100,000 feet of wiring. It was an expensive venture, and it still is. The article quotes Ray Dotter, company spokesman for one of the regional operators that make up the eastern grid, who maintains no one wants to consider the cost of burying the lines in any but the most urban places: “There’s a need to build new lines. But no matter where you propose them, people don’t want them.”

And then there is measuring use. Imprecise instruments were used in the 1800s, none of them able to track usage over time. In the spring of 1882, the electric meter was revealed, and it’s a model we still use today—not the model, but the idea itself. But think about how it works in terms of our lifestyles now: a human being has to come to your home to get a reading. Achenbach points out additional difficulties: the power company only knows there’s a problem when you call and say so. What’s missing from the equation is instantaneous feedback, which a greener, smarter grid may be able to provide. (Oh, and in case you were wondering, the first electric bill was sent to the Ansonia brass and copper company on Jan. 18, 1883 for $50.44. How does that measure with your current bill?)

The smart grid, Achenbach writes, needs to be more automated, self healing, and tolerant of green initiatives. It will inform us about usage, and allow us to make choices about consumption that are associated with cost. Like the Pearl Street system, our grid works despite its problems, but they are a lurking concern.

Believe it or not, less than one percent of the energy used to power NYC comes from renewable resources. So what’s the holdup? Good question. Better, smarter, cleaner energy is not cheap. Utility executives worry about what happens if the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine—they like stability, but the comfort it offers appears to be rather thin.

As demands for power grew, Pearl Street tried to stretch to provide the supplies needed. Transporting energy over distances was an issue for Edison because he used direct current (DC). His competitors, Tesla and Westinghouse, were proponents of alternating current (AC) and believed it could meet these demands as well as those from businesses for higher voltages. Though Edison was hesitant to concede, AC eventually won out. Still, the Pearl Street station operated successfully in downtown Manhattan until a fire broke out in 1890. The station was rebuilt and it continued to power the city until 1912 when it was finally decommissioned, but it showed us the way. And it lit our skyline. But as in the case of the DC to AC power transition, it’s time to look to other alternatives for urban areas.

What are your cities and towns doing to manage electricity usage? Have something to say? Do you have an umbrella story to share? Comments have been disabled on Anthropology in Practice, but you can always join the community on Facebook.


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