like the printing press or the Internet, is what is known as a “general
purpose” technology—an innovation that revolutionizes society and forms the
foundation of modern life as we know it. When you think of all the ways we use
electricity every day—riding an elevator, heating our food, charging our
phones—it becomes difficult to imagine a world without it. But what, exactly,
is electricity? And how has it come to play such a central role in our lives?
is very difficult to define, and can refer to anything that has to do with the
presence and movement of charged atomic particles called electrons. These
particles are able to transfer energy from one atom to the next, which is the
way we most commonly think of electricity: the flow of energy via wires from
its source into our homes, businesses, hospitals, schools and more. Rather than
being the source of our energy, we can say electricity is the means by which we
is a naturally occurring phenomenon that people have learned to harness through
a series of creative inventions. For modern commercial usage, electricity is
generated at power plants by burning nonrenewable fossil fuels such as coal,
natural gas, and petroleum, or by capturing the energy of renewable sources
such as the wind, sunshine, and water. Each of these processes converts energy
from its original source into usable electricity, which is carried away from
the power plant along high-capacity transmission wires and into the network of
power lines known as the electric grid.
it reaches our homes, the electricity first travels to neighborhood substations
and then along smaller distribution lines to electrical transformers (either
underground or high on telephone poles), which reduce the strength, or voltage,
of the electricity to a level that is safe to use for our everyday needs. When you
plug a device into an outlet, you are tapping into the electric grid – electricity
flows into one prong, through the device, and out the other prong, completing a
circuit that provides the energy your phone charger, microwave, or television
needs to function.
electricity, lighting was provided by candles and gas lamps, our food was
stored in iceboxes, and fireplaces were the main source of heat in our homes.
Although people have been aware of electric forces since Ancient Greece, the
term “electricity” was only first used in 1600. Since then, many familiar names
– Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla – have contributed to our
understanding of electricity, making it impossible to give credit to just one
or two inventors. Benjamin Franklin, in his famous 1752 kite experiment,
discovered that lightning is a naturally occurring source of electricity. Italian
physicist Alessandro Volta invented the electric battery in 1800, providing us
with the first controlled, usable source of electricity. Throughout the 19th
century, many important scientists contributed to our knowledge of electricity
– the work of Michael Faraday led to the invention of the electric generator,
Thomas Edison’s light bulb led to the first widespread commercial use of
electricity, and Nikola Tesla’s experiments with alternating current allowed
electricity to be transmitted across vast distances.
on all of these innovations, electricity started playing a greater role in
everyday life. Cleveland, Ohio became the first city to use electric lamps for
public lighting in 1879, and that same year San Francisco’s California Electric
Light Company, Inc. became the first company to sell electricity to customers.
Small electrical stations capable of powering a few blocks were in place in
many American cities by 1890, and by the time America’s first alternating
current power line – the same kind of power line we use today – opened in 1893
between Folsom and Sacramento, California, the country’s electricity industry
was rapidly expanding. Pepco began supplying electricity to the Washington, DC
area in the 1920s, and by 1950 nearly all Americans, both urban and rural, were
plugged into the electric grid.
because electricity is now a common feature in our lives doesn’t mean that
innovation has stopped – or even slowed down.
introduction of smart grid technology into the traditional
power grid is allowing customers to better track and manage their electricity
usage and costs with features such as smart meters that improve efficiency,
sustainability, and reliability. We are committed to building the most advanced
and reliable power grid.
the commercial use of electricity started with light bulbs and later expanded
to many other devices and appliances, transportation is electricity’s 21st
century new frontier. Battery-powered electric cars, currently being produced
by more than ten major automakers, can be plugged into typical electrical
outlets to recharge. These vehicles produce drastically lower emissions than
gas-fueled cars and, as the cost of gas continues to climb, present a much
cheaper alternative for both individual customers and our national economy. It
is estimated that the cost of powering an electric car for the same distance as
a gallon of gasoline could be less than one dollar. We recognize the enormous
potential of electric cars and have moved ahead with implementing an innovative
Plug-In Vehicle Charging Pilot Program and are gradually converting our service
fleet to electric vehicles. To learn more, make sure to read about our hybrid and
electric vehicle fleet.
not the only mode of transportation benefiting from innovations in
electricity. Rail transport, especially in the dense Northeast Corridor from
Washington to Boston, stands to improve in speed, safety, and reliability as
advanced electric wires are installed that deliver greater amounts of energy to
train engines in a more efficient manner. Imagine Washington to New York City
in 1.5 hours – with electricity, it’s possible.
91% of electricity in America still comes from nonrenewable sources, advances
in solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, and hydropower are quickly making
renewable energy a more realistic option. Electricity from abundant
nonrenewable resources has traditionally been less expensive to produce, but as
the global demand for electricity increases, renewable resources promise to
revolutionize the energy industry into one that has minimal impact on our
environment, is less susceptible to changes in the price of resources such as
petroleum and provides a reliable, infinite source of electricity for a growing
We are committed to increasing the amount of renewable energy sources used
to generate electricity for our customers. Today, that percentage is small due
to the lack of available renewable resources. However, we are committed to
seeing that percentage grow – up to 20% by 2020 in some states– because
renewable energy has the potential to provide us with cleaner air, a more
diverse energy portfolio and less dependence on foreign fossil fuels.