One hundred twenty-five years ago today, Thomas Edison coolly flipped a switch he had rigged in the offices of his main financial backer, the legendary banker J. P. Morgan. The switch was connected by an intricate system of cables and copper wires to the latest celebrated project of the Wizard of Menlo Park – a coal-fired electric generating plant located several blocks away, at 257 Pearl Street in New York’s financial district.
An instant later, electric lights flickered on — not just in Morgan’s suite, but all over a section of lower Manhattan. That successful inaugural run in 1882 of the Pearl Street Station, the nation’s first central electric power plant, technically illuminated just a small portion of the sprawling metropolis. It brought light indoors to only 59 initial customers. In a much broader sense, though, it was that flip of the switch which allowed Edison to light up and usher in the modern world.
A century and a quarter later, it is tempting to think of Edison (if we think of him at all) and his works as anachronisms — cutting-edge marvels of an antiquated past, but of decreasing use today. After all, what use do we have for phonographs or two-way telegraphs in an age of digital music files and instantaneous satellite video communications? Even Edison’s incandescent light bulb is under assault from legislators who would ban its use in favor of compact fluorescents. Edison, it seems, has no place in the modern era.
But to write off Edison as a 19th-century relic is to run the risk of missing the big story of energy in the 21st: the future will be decidedly electric. That’s a hard concept to grasp when we are conditioned to think that “energy” means “oil.” Our headlines focus on petroleum as the lifeblood of the American and global economies. The maneuverings and machinations of OPEC strongmen draw constant media attention. Meanwhile, rapidly increasing oil consumption in China and India worries our policymakers and our presidential candidates.
This focus on oil is, to a degree, misplaced. Oil is an important part of our energy use, but it’s not the only part. The most significant economic and environmental challenges tied to energy in the coming decades have to do with electricity and the fuels that generate it — not oil.
When President Bush famously challenged Americans to move beyond the petroleum based economy in his 2006 State of the Union address, he didn’t realize that we already are doing so. The American economy has become increasingly electrified over the last several decades. Technological advances in microprocessing and computers have begun changing the energy-use landscape. In an era marked by computers, handheld PDAs, cellular phones, and iPods — not to mention the Internet — Americans now use 82 percent more electricity than we did in 1980. This jump in electricity use accounts for over 85 percent of the growth in our energy demand during that time. Sixty percent of America’s gross domestic product now comes from industries and services that run on electricity, as opposed to just 20 percent in 1950.
This trend will only intensify. Energy experts Peter Huber and Mark Mills, authors of The Bottomless Well, predict major electrical advances in the thermal sector of the economy. Lasers, microwaves, magnetic fields, and other electric technologies will displace a significant portion of the heating now performed in conventional ovens and industrial processes. Computers and microprocessors will transform our vehicles, allowing electricity to power our cars and trucks instead of oil.
Our economy will require much more electricity in the future. The U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts electricity consumption will increase by 43 percent by 2030. It is critical, therefore, that policymakers concentrate on issues that acknowledge and prepare for those projections. That means pro-growth policies spurring investments to increase capacity. We need more power plants, especially nuclear plants, but more coal-fired generators too. We need to upgrade infrastructure, as well, to ensure that the grid can handle heavier demand. And we need to recognize that policies romanticizing renewable energies like wind and solar power will fail to address the hard realities of an expanding economy.
Edison’s insight that electricity could improve and transform our lives is as applicable today as it was 125 years ago. Our economy is continuing to electrify and is becoming less and less dependent on oil in the process; not simply a 19th-century hero, Thomas Edison will stand as one of the towering figures of the 21st century.
— Max Schulz is a senior fellow at the Center for Energy Policy and the Environment at the Manhattan Institute.