History of electric power transmission

History of electric power transmission

In the early days of commercial use of electric power, electric power transmission restricted the distance between generating plant and consumers. Originally generation was with direct current, which could not easily be increased in voltage for long-distance transmission. Different classes of loads, for example, lighting, fixed motors, and traction (railway) systems, required different voltages and so used different generators and circuits. [ Hughes ]

At an AIEE meeting on May 16, 1888, Nikola Tesla delivered a lecture entitled "", describing the equipment which allowed efficient generation and use of alternating currents. Tesla's disclosures, in the form of patents, lectures and technical articles, are useful for understanding the history of the modern system of power transmission. Ownership of the rights to the Tesla patents was a key commercial advantage to the Westinghouse Company in offering a complete alternating current power system for both lighting and power.

The so-called "universal system" used transformers both to couple generators to high-voltage transmission lines, and to connect transmission to local distribution circuits. By a suitable choice of utility frequency, both lighting and motor loads could be served. Rotary converters and later mercury-arc valves and other rectifier equipment allowed DC load to be served by local conversion where needed. Even generating stations and loads using different frequencies could also be interconnected using rotary converters. By using common generating plants for every type of load, important economies of scale were achieved, lower overall capital investment was required, load factor on each plant was increased allowing for higher efficiency, allowing for a lower cost of energy to the consumer and increased overall use of electric power.

By allowing multiple generating plants to be interconnected over a wide area, electricity production cost was reduced. The most efficient available plants could be used to supply the varying loads during the day. Reliability was improved and capital investment cost was reduced, since stand-by generating capacity could be shared over many more customers and a wider geographic area. Remote and low-cost sources of energy, such as hydroelectric power or mine-mouth coal, could be exploited to lower energy production cost. [ Thomas P. Hughes, "Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society 1880-1930", The Johns Hopkins University Press,Baltimore 1983 ISBN 0-8018-2873-2]

The first transmission of three-phase alternating current using high voltage took place in 1891 during the international electricity exhibition in Frankfurt. A 25 kV transmission line, approximately 175 kilometers long, connected Lauffen on the Neckar and Frankfurt.

Initially transmission lines were supported by porcelain pin-and-sleeve insulators similar to those used for telegraphs and telephone lines. However, these had a practical limit of 40 kV. In 1907, the invention of the disc insulator by Harold W. Buck of the Niagara Falls Power Corporation and Edward M. Hewlett of General Electric allowed practical insulators of any length to be constructed for higher voltages. The first large scale hydroelectric generators in the USA were installed at Niagara Falls and provided electricity to Buffalo, New York via power transmission lines. A statue of Tesla stands at Niagara Falls today in tribute to his contributions.

Voltages used for electric power transmission increased throughout the 20th century. By 1914 fifty-five transmission systems operating at more than 70,000 V were in service, the highest voltage then used was 150,000 volts. [ Bureau of Census data reprinted in Hughes, pp. 282-283 ] The first three-phase alternating current power transmission at 110 kV took place in 1912 between Lauchhammer and Riesa, Germany.

In the early 1920ies the Pit River - Cottonwood - Vaca-Dixon line was built for 220 kV transporting power from hydroelectric plants in the Sierra Nevada to the San Francisco Bay Area. On April 17, 1929 the first 220 kV line in Germany was completed, running from Brauweiler near Cologne, over Kelsterbach near Frankfurt, Rheinau near Mannheim, Ludwigsburg-Hoheneck near Austria. This line comprises the North-South interconnect, at the time one of the worlds largest power systems. The masts of this line were designed for eventual upgrade to 380 kV. However the first transmission at 380 kV in Germany was on October 5, 1957 between the substations in Rommerskirchen and Ludwigsburg-Hoheneck.

The worlds first 380 kV power line was built in Sweden, the 952 km Harsprånget - Hallsberg line in 1952. In 1967 the first extra-high-voltage transmission at 735 kV took place on a Hydro-Québec transmission line. In 1982 the first transmission at 1200 kV was in the Soviet Union.

The rapid industrialization in the 20th century made electrical transmission lines and grids a critical part of the economic infrastructure in most industrialized nations. Interconnection of local generation plants and small distribution networks was greatly spurred by the requirements of World War I, where large electrical generating plants were built by governments to provide power to munitions factories; later these plants were connected to supply civil load through long-distance transmission. [ Hughes, pp. 293-295 ]

Small municipal electrical utilities did not necessarily desire to reduce the cost of each unit of electricity sold; to some extent, especially during the period 1880-1890, electrical lighting was considered a luxury product and electric power was not substituted for steam power. Engineers such as Samuel Insull in the United States and Sebastian Z. De Ferranti in the United Kingdom were instrumental in overcoming technical, economic, regulatory and political difficulties in development of long-distance electric power transmission. By introduction of electric power transmission networks, in the city of London the cost of a kilowatthour was reduced to one-third in a ten-year period. [ Hughes pp. ]

In 1926 electrical networks in the United Kingdom began to be interconnected in the National Grid, initially operating at 132,000 volts.


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