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We asked: What was the biggest power breakthrough in the last 100 years?

A lot of things have changed. It used to be that utilities talked about outages and reliability. Now they talk about branding and social media—and outages and reliability. OK. So maybe we haven’t totally changed. There’s certainly been evolution, but there’s also a solid base underneath all that new growth.

So, we knocked on a few doors and asked about the solid base – the industry a-ha moments that defined the last century.  What are the biggest, most powerful elements in the equation? See if you agree with the answers. (Whether you do or you don’t, tell us all about it on Twitter @IntelUtil using the #powerbreakthru.)


“I believe the biggest breakthrough/achievement was the development of the automatic secondary alternating current distribution network by the United Electric Light & Power Co. of NY in 1922.

“The first 40 years of utility power distribution to customers was primarily in the form of direct current due to efficiency issues with alternating current in areas of dense concentration of load. The renowned engineer Charles Steinmetz recommended, in 1896, that dc distribution should be installed wherever the customer base was sufficient to amortize the investment in the expensive substations and heavy copper cables that were required for 120/240 volt dc power distribution. Retention of dc also enabled the use of battery reserve/backup in the substations. By the second decade of the 20th century, the cost of dc distribution represented 50% of the total system investment and companies began exploring means to make ac distribution more practical.

“Virtually every city had an alternating current network concept under development by 1920 but all had some deficiency. The United automatic network was the first to resolve all the issues and became the standard; it also introduced the modern 208Y/120 volt three-phase, four-wire system. Six years after introduction it was cited by N Y Edison Co. President Matthew Sloan in his disclosure of the planned conversion of the NYE system to ac—a system which was then the most complex and extensive dc utility distribution in the world. The automatic network enabled continued reduction in the cost of power, simplified the physical requirements of utility system and enabled standardization of electrical products. Prior to that, generation involved both 60 Hz. for ac customers and 25 Hz and substation conversion for dc customers. Consumer products had also involved two separate lines, one for urban dc customers and another for ac customers. The results encouraged greater market expansion with consequent load growth and economies of scale as simpler and more efficient ac devices came on the market. A total of 315 US utilities adopted the automatic network over the next fifty years, today more than 350 cities worldwide employ automatic distribution networks.” Joe Cunningham, power historian/author of the book “New York Power”

“At a traditional level, the greatest breakthrough in the last 100 years was the advent of alternating current, which brought electricity to the masses, regardless of location.” Karen Joslyn, vice president, energy and manufacturing, SAS

“The choice between AC and DC power has been one of the biggest milestones in the industry in the last 100 years. We struggled to choose between AC and DC power and picked the best compromise technology offered 100 years ago.

Looking ahead, I believe the biggest breakthrough that will revolutionize the smart grid is just a few steps ahead of us when we combine the equivalent unanswered dilemma of radio frequency (RF) and power line carrier (PLC) communications for the smart grid by changing the game and combining both technologies together.” Simon Pontin, CTO, Itron

“The ability to harness and actually use electricity was the biggest breakthrough. At that point, we could create a business around electricity, and it changed the world.” Mike Guyton, senior vice president and chief customer officer, Oncor

“The automated secondary network AC system was and is an engineering marvel and was the smart grid of its day. This special network grid is very costly to build and maintain. However, compared to where smart grid solutions have evolved to date, it is still the superior solution.” Carl Goeckeler, utility engineer, KCP&L


“In 2003, the National Academy of Engineering selected electrification as the greatest engineering achievement of the 20th Century—ahead of the internet, the airplane and the car. The electric utility system in North America is also recognized as the single largest, most complex machine ever built. The level of engineering achievement combined with the level of system complexity makes choosing one innovation across a period of 100 years nearly impossible. When we opened up the question of the “top innovation of the past 100 years” to our Leidos Engineering energy experts, most were hard-pressed to pick only one innovation. Across our experts, while several opinions overlapped, we had close to 30 different ideas ranging from generation and distribution technologies to business processes to new fuel and power source discoveries. That so many well-respected experts in the industry provided such a variety of responses is a testament to the unique nature of our electric utility system. It truly is an engineering marvel. Jim Baxter, senior vice president, energy solutions, Leidos Engineering

“This was a revolutionary movement that transcended geography and topology. Farmers had new conveniences and new business opportunities and options. Many farmers and ranchers took on new business opportunities such as expanding their acreage or planting new crops on old lands that were previously barren.” Carl Goeckeler, utility engineer, KCP&L

““When I think about great innovations that have impacted the power sector, there are actually two that come to mind. The first is the successful development and deployment of our fleet of light water reactors, which have now powered America's growth and prosperity for nearly 40 years. This technology has been and will continue to be essential as our country strives to provide clean, safe, reliable and affordable energy to power our economy far into the future. 

The second is the nation's electrical grid which integrates all of the various generating sources to deliver energy to where it is needed in a very efficient and reliable manner.” Steve Kuczynski, chairman, president and CEO, Southern Nuclear, a Southern Company subsidiary

“As late as the mid-1930s, nine out of ten rural homes lacked electric service. The unavailability of electricity in rural areas kept their economies entirely and exclusively dependent on agriculture. Factories and businesses, of course, preferred to locate in cities where electric power was easily acquired. For many years, power companies ignored the rural areas of the nation.

“President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order on May 11, 1935, established the Rural Electrification Administration (REA). Within four years following the close of the World War II, the number of rural electric systems in operation doubled, the number of consumers connected more than tripled and the miles of energized line grew more than five-fold. By 1953, more than 90 percent of U.S. farms had electricity.  

“Today, about 99 percent of the nation’s farms have electric service, mostly from electric cooperatives. Over all, electric cooperatives serve more than 42 million Americans in 47 states with 2.5 million miles of distribution lines that cover 75 percent of the nation’s landmass.” Jo Ann Emerson, CEO, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association

“Electrification has changed the way the world lives, but it wouldn’t have been possible without technology like electro mechanical relays or the latest intelligent monitoring devices. The industry could not have expanded as it has without technology to assure them a stable, safe and continuous flow of power to end users.” Chris Hummel, CMO, Schneider Electric


“What’s probably most striking about the energy industry over the past 100 years is how little it has changed. If Thomas Edison were to come back today, he would find an electric system that looks and functions largely as it did 100 years ago. That is changing with the introduction of digital technology. Microchips and microprocessors will change the nature of our generation, the way we operate the grid, the service we offer consumers and our communications with consumers. The digital age marks the third major economic revolution in history.” Anne Pramaggiore, president and CEO, ComEd



“Our much maligned regulatory framework facilitated the rollout of electricity across the USA over the past century. It was able to avoid the pitfalls that many inventions can fall victim to and created the incentive structure for the delivery of safe, reliable and ubiquitous energy. Now we just have to realign the framework for the needs of the next 100 years.” Adrian Tuck, CEO, Tendril


“For years, the power grid was a one-way network. Utilities could control supply, but they couldn’t adequately or dynamically control demand. The most practical way to deal with an anticipated spike in consumption was to increase supply.

Demand response was the first step in transforming the relationship between utilities and consumers into a two-way street. Solar, wind, nuclear power and other innovations have all been about changing the mix of supply: demand response really allowed the industry to examine what they do from the other way around. Over the next 100 years, controlling demand will play a fundamental role in the power industry. It will help reduce emissions, allow utilities to postpone capital upgrades, and help conserve natural resources.

“You’re also going to see a greater awareness among consumers about how to use power and how to reduce their bills that can be traced back to the development of demand response. Demand response will also shift from being about getting large amounts of power from a few customers a few times a year to small amounts of customers across wide territories on a continual basis. The grid will become fluid. “It’s a clunky name, but a beautiful concept.” Amit Narayan, CEO, AutoGrid Systems



“One of the biggest game-changers in almost any industry over the past 25 years is the advancement of communications network technology, and the electric utility industry is no different. Utilities have increasingly complex operations as a result of customer expectations, increased distributed generation and regulatory requirements around cost and reliability. A critical element of addressing this complexity is by leveraging the rapid innovations associated with communication technology.” Matthew Zafuto, executive vice president, corporate strategy and business development, Sensus

“Being able to get a real-time snapshot of electrical loads and generation while remotely controlling generation, transmission and distribution facilities has made our grid the most reliable and cost-effective grid in the world. Most people have no idea how the interconnected grid works and is controlled via SCADA and communication networks across all of the U.S.” Keith Nix, vice president of technical services and system reliability, Texas-New Mexico Power Co.



“The power electronics behind advanced solutions like HVDC, FACTS, solar PV inverters and battery storage inverters/converters are transforming today's power industry in a big way.” Gary Rackliffe, vice president of smart grids, ABB



“We’re still running cars on oil and getting most of our electricity from coal and natural gas. The primary applications for energy look remarkably the same as they did 100 years ago. The biggest change has occurred around lighting. It is the one area where we are seeing rapid and genuine progress in how we use energy. The Edison bulb was great, but it was only 5% efficient: with LEDs we are sending the last vestige of the vacuum tube industry to the tar pits. Lighting consumes so much energy that even the US government has set forth mandates that all bulbs must be 70% more efficient than incandescent bulbs by 2020, and has been evidenced by the phasing out of 70W and 100W bulbs in 2014.” Brad Bullington, CEO, Bridgelux



“For the first hundred years of the electricity grid, customers had no idea how much energy they used until the end of the month—and then it was just one kWh total for the whole month. Customers had no way to analyze when and how they used electricity, and utilities had no way to accurately charge customers for the true cost of the electricity when they used it. With AMI developing and proliferating in the last ten years, the potential for a more dynamic demand side of the grid equation is enormous. Customers can access their usage data in hourly increments or less in near-real time and utilities and competitive energy suppliers can design creative pricing offers to meet the needs of different customer segments and incentivize usage at the optimal times for the grid. The days of a vertical demand curve are over and everyone will benefit from a more efficient system.” Brett Feldman, senior research analyst, Navigant “Through the implementation of comprehensive communications networks including tools such as Advanced Metering Infrastructures (AMI), distribution automation (DA) and intelligent lighting infrastructure, utilities have greater control and management of their assets, which helps them improve efficiencies, solve operational issues and improve customer service. By leveraging the intelligence in the distribution network, utilities can operate their distribution assets in a more efficient, safe, reliable way and engage their customers in a more contextually-rich manner.” Matthew Zafuto, executive vice president, corporate strategy and business development, Sensus



“My personal favorite is battery energy storage because it decouples generation from consumption.” Gary Rackliffe, vice president of smart grids, ABB



“Post World War II, a black box load was introduced that changed altered the ways utility designed and maintained their electrical system—the hotter the climate, the more the impact. Electrical black boxes were literally sold out of trailers to meet the high demand of customers who wanted relief from summer heat waves. It was installed in the window and used thermodynamics to exchange hot and humid air in the household into climate-controlled comfort. The window air conditioner was deployed quickly by retail marketing and sales campaigns. Utilities could not keep up with the load increases that came abruptly to our systems. Electrical systems were overloaded; wires sagged or melted on older 4-kV systems. Utility engineers recommended sweeping changes to increase the nominal primary system voltages to much higher levels, such as 15 kV class operation. Linemen worked long hours and extended days to fix problems and completely rebuild systems. This had a profound effect on utility designs and happened so quickly. Years later, the next generation talked about the computer and harmonics as the new black box. Bu t the first black box shaped utility designs more abruptly. Carl Goeckeler, utility engineer, KCP&L

“The health benefits of AC and refrigeration have to be high on this list, along with the evolving safety record in this industry and the great developments in nuclear and wind energy.” Doug Sterbenz, executive vice president and COO, Westar



“At a traditional level, the greatest breakthrough in the last 100 years was the advent of alternating current, which brought electricity to the masses, regardless of location. When considering the greatest modern breakthrough though, it is the intelligent grid and its contributions to the Internet of Things. All the sensor data that the modern grid brings to us is creating new capabilities to empower utilities to harness the power of data. Data and analytics are bringing new understanding of utilities’ energy profiles, which leads to better energy forecasting, better asset planning, optimized purchase agreements, intelligent customer interactions in the call center and marketing, as well as truly understanding the customers’ needs and desires.

“The Internet of Things created by grid technology is also helping utilities to position themselves for future business models. Once utilities better understand customers, they can begin to plan for the most optimal and environmentally advantageous generation. These same analytics can then be used to improve the reliability and aid the delivery of energy to the consumer by embracing options like microgrids and distributed generation.” Karen Joslyn, VP, Energy & Manufacturing, SAS

“I would like to approach the question from the point of view of what is needed to sustain the achievements and enable an even greater good for all. This has lead me, and many I have spoken with in the industry, to the realization of the need for a more intelligent and integrated grid. This is not necessarily new, as the need has been around for many years. One could say the industry has been in a prolonged incremental transition to the intelligent and integrated grid for the past few decades.

“However, in the recent decade there has been a convergence of factors that have accelerated the pace needed to achieve the vision of an intelligent and integrated grid. Distributed energy resources (DER), particularly customer-owned rooftop solar photovoltaics, have begun proliferating in wide numbers due to lower cost to purchase and install, as well as consumers wanting more control of their energy source and energy costs. As more and more customers become prosumers and feed electricity back into the grid, the distribution grid as we know it is being challenged to change, to transform. The new wealth of data from meters, sensors and other devices throughout the distribution grid--and the associated analytics now being applied to that data—is making it possible for utilities to realize a near real-time, responsive, more intelligent grid, and to begin to integrate DERs in a more effective manner.

“Looking to the future, we need more advanced modeling of the DERs operating on the grid. Ideally, this modeling would take into account the size of the resource and its location, as well as the day of the year and the current cloud cover forecast in order to assume a standard output from that resource. As well, current business model for utilities needs to change. For the vision of an intelligent and integrated grid to be truly realized, a new and wider role for the utility must be defined, as well as a major regulatory overhaul.” Rodger Smith, senior vice president and general manager, Oracle Utilities

“The biggest power breakthrough in the last 100 years has taken place during the past 50 years as we have begun taking a more holistic view of energy. Driven in part by the desire to integrate new generation sources such as renewables, this trend towards wide area interconnection is being re-visited in the 21st century, as significant transmission reinforcement is again being considered in many regions, Moreover, in recent years the physical power flow coupling of the transmission grid is increasingly being supplemented by coupling via high bandwidth, wide area sensing communication and control, under the umbrella of smart grid. Clearly, the objective is to exploit opportunities in control-based cyber-infrastructure to enable much more efficient utilization of the grid’s high-capital-cost physical infrastructure, to achieve better performance, lower cost and reduce environmental impact in society’s electric energy use.”  Massoud Amin, chairman, IEEE Smart Grid

“With regards to innovations related to communication networks, three I’s have made the greatest impact: instrumentation, interconnectivity and intelligence.

  • Instrumentation: To meet the demand for a superior communications infrastructure, utilities needed reliable intelligent devices such as advanced meters and Intelligent Electrical Devices (IEDs) that would support two-way communications and provide utilities with more operational insights of their network.
  • Interconnectivity: With smarter instrumentation in place, communications networks connect to other interdependent systems, helping increase the stream of information and communication throughout a utility.
  • Intelligence: Utilities are now able to correlate events throughout their operations on a near-time or real-time basis. Event correlation and advanced analytical techniques enable utilities to transform data into information, and transform information into decision support intelligence.


“As utility operations increase in complexity, the advancement of technology will enable utilities to continue meeting the ever-increasing requirements of their customers, regulators and employees.” Matthew Zafuto, executive vice president, corporate strategy and business development, Sensus

“The last 100 years has seen incredible inventions in the energy industry. I can’t imagine where we’d be without advancements in alternating current, turbines and fuel conversion techniques. But as we look to the grid of today and tomorrow, the biggest breakthrough is smart grid technology.

“Just as the Internet has transformed our lives in countless ways, so the emerging smart grid promises to transform electricity infrastructure for the benefit of customers. Smart grids combine computing, communications, sensing and control technologies to make energy delivery much more flexible and responsive to changing conditions so utilities can provide customers with safer, more reliable, cleaner and more cost-effective services. At PG&E, we’re focused on deploying smart grid technologies that will help our customers take advantage of solar generation, electric vehicles and home energy management technologies—essentially a ‘grid of things.’

“We are only at the beginning of this fascinating journey. Already, the technology allows customers to monitor and control their electricity usage in near-real-time, take advantage of new pricing plans that save them money while easing stress on the grid during periods of peak demand, and make it affordable to charge the new generation of plug-in electric vehicles.

“Smart grid technology also helps utilities detect and locate outages more quickly, so repair crews can restore service; reroute power intelligently in case of outages, so far fewer customers are inconvenienced; and monitor large regional transmission grids in real time to help prevent devastating grid failures.

“The electric grid is the key enabler for clean energy innovation now and in the years to come, helping to enable a more productive and more comfortable world in the 21st century. Working to support and enable these new technologies will not only help us continue to provide service that is safe, reliable, affordable and clean today, but will also pave the road to the smart energy economy of the future.” Chris Johns, President, Pacific Gas and Electric Company


Kathleen Wolf Davis is the Editor-in-Chief of the Intelligent Utility Magazine and can be reached at

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Thank Kathleen for the Post!

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