GE Ecomagination Challenge

My post on the Cisco i prize brought a couple of comments mentioning the General Electric Ecomagination Challenge, another “innovation challenge”, but slightly different. The topic for this challenge is “Powering the Grid”. From a historical perspective on electrical grids, GE is probably still smarting from the smackdown of AC vs DC delivered to them by Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse. GE and its founder Thomas Edison lost the battle with their Direct Current transmission proposals losing to the ubiquitous Alternating Current which has been the standard for most household and industrial electricity for more than 100 years. Edison took it rather personally and apparently tried to popularize the term “Westinghoused” to refer to people who were electrocuted with alternating current and went so far as having his engineers design and promote the Electric Chair (which utilized AC, not DC) for execution of criminals hoping to turn the public against the use of AC power.

There are many other stories around the early distribution standards, but it really boiled down to transmission efficiency. Electrical power over long distances is less subject to transmission loss if the voltages are higher. Alternating current can easily be transformed to higher or lower voltages using simple interleaved loops of wire (called “transformers”) so high voltage can be used for transmission and can be stepped down to lower voltages for household use. Direct current was not so easy to transform and required larger more expensive conductors.

But that is history. GE is trying to rewrite history, or write some new history with their challenge, which:

“is an open call to action for businesses, entrepreneurs, innovators and students seeking breakthrough ideas to create a cleaner, more efficient and economically viable grid, and accelerate the adoption of smart grid technologies.”

And this time, it would seem that Edison’s idea of DC power may be part of the solution. The reason for this is that transmission loss is a thing of the past when superconductors come into play. Superconductors can reduce transmission loss substantially. The only issue with them when considered in today’s AC world is that they work best (or in some cases only) with direct current. Batteries, Solar Cells and many electronic circuits in green technologies also live happily on DC power. Edison may have his last laugh after all.

But we are getting into the weeds here. I wanted to talk about how GE is going to facilitate re-imagining the future rather than the past. And I wanted to talk a bit about the technology from Bright Idea that they are using to conduct the contest. But it is time for the lights to go out here so I’ll save that up for the next post. To keep you occupied until then, consider this quote from Nikola Tesla:

“The scientists of today think deeply instead of clearly. One must be sane to think clearly, but one can think deeply and be quite insane.”

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