Electricity is a form of energy generated in the presence of two forces — magnetic and mechanical. The magnetic force comes readily from a magnet. The mechanical force is derived from the following sources: First, burn coal to heat water to steam to drive a turbine equipped with a huge magnetic coil. Second, burn oil or natural gas instead of coal. Third, use nuclear fission instead of fossil fuels. Fourth, use an internal combustion engine to directly drive the turbine. Fifth, instead of fuels, use gravity such as a waterfall or a dam.
All of the above methods represent the first stage of electrification beginning about two centuries ago that involves fuels or water, usually both, to produce the required mechanical force. This method is suitable for large-scale operations to supply electricity to the cities for lighting, heating and household appliances. As a result, the electricity must be delivered from the generating plants via miles and miles of cables overhead or buried underground.
This old electrification system is characterized by concentrated production carrying hazards usually being ignored. The health hazard is the pollution of air and water, or the possible leakage of radioactive nuclear fuels in an earthquake or accident. The environmental hazard includes releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Even clean hydro-electricity damages the ecosystem due to its huge scale and the diversion of fresh water from rivers and lakes.
The second stage of electrification involves extending application to the transport sector. This began when the London Underground opened in 1863. Subway trains must run on electricity because they cannot burn toxic fuels underground. In 1964, the first electric bullet train debuted in Japan. It has now become a popular mode of mass transport in Japan, China and Europe. The 21st century has witnesed the emergence of hybrids and electric cars/bicycles/tricycles for the mass market resulting in less gasoline consumed. Small electric airplanes are already flying in the experimental stage. At present, the transport sector mainly relies on the traditional system of electricity production and delivery.
The third stage of electrification has a lot to do with production and distribution. It began in the 1980’s when the Altamont Pass Wind Farm in central California was built in response to the oil crisis. Wind power has an ancient history exemplified by sails on boats, and windmills for irrigation or grinding crops. Wind directly produces the required mechanical force instead of the traditional method of using fuels or water. However, wind power depends on geography and scale. It can only operate in windy locations where a large number of wind turbines must be built for maximum capacity. Wind power then languished for two decades due to the softening of oil prices until the early 2000’s when it began to take off. Nowadays, wind is the fastest-growing source of energy in the world. It is clean and limitless except that it still operates on a large scale that may upset the balance of the ecosystem.
Solar energy is also a feature of the third stage of electrification. It results from the invention of photovoltaic (PV) cells that turn sunlight directly into electricity. It is a revolutionary method requiring none of the traditional magnetic and mechanical forces. Solar is also clean and limitless except that it is only 25% efficient up to now for being new. On the other hand, the dramatic price drop of PV cells in the last few years has greatly contributed to its fast growth.
Solar does not need to operate on a large scale, hence it has one real advantage – distributive production. A house can be equipped with solar panels to make it an independent producer and consumer of electricity at the same time. As more houses become independent electricity producers, the importance of utility companies will decline, so will their clumsy but necessary transmission systems of electric cables.
Solar is truly a revolutionary method for it demonstrates the direct generation of electricity from silicon and sunlight which are plentiful. Since it does not require the combination of mechanical and magnetic forces, solar is able to free itself from the existing electricity production/delivery system. The progress of solar depends on two important factors: the efficiency of solar cells, and the storage capacity of the battery. When the solar panels on the roof produce sufficient electricity during daytime to be stored in the battery in house, the electric car can be fully recharged during nighttime from the battery. Hence there is no need for electricity to be supplied by the utility company, and no need for burning gasoline to drive the car. This is what I call the eventual integration of the house, the car and the sun.
The electrification of the modern world is progressing day after day. Advancing technologies will bring forth revolutions in the way we produce, deliver and consume electricity. The following are some countries and companies leading the way:
*Denmark has more than 33% of its total energy derived from wind in 2013 (Danish Wind Energy Association).
*Iowa is the leading state in the US producing 27% of its energy from wind in 2013 (American Wind Energy Association).
*Google derives 35% of its electricity from renewable sources (San Jose Mercury News 2/11/2015).
*Apple’s data centers derives 100% of its electricity from renewable sources, 86% in corporate offices, and 72% overall company average including retail stores.
(San Jose Mercury News 2/11/2015)