L.A. Confidential: Energy’s Changing Landscape, Yesterday and Today

(The American Energy Society) – Before 1948, there was something funny about the electricity in Los Angeles. Plug in a clock from New York and it would lose 10 minutes every hour. Spin a record on a turntable from San Francisco and it would sound deep and drowsy. Some gadgets wouldn’t work at all. The problem? Southern California’s power grid ran on a different frequency. Like the rest of the U.S., the region was wired for 120 volts, but its alternating current pulsed out of power plants and into electrical sockets at a slower rate—50 cycles per second (or 50hz) versus than the national 60hz standard. That standard had not yet emerged in 1893, when Southern California became home to the nation’s first three-phase, alternating current hydroelectric generation plant. As General Electric workers were installing the generator, it was left to the supervising engineer on site, Louis Bell, to determine the frequency. GE’s rival, Westinghouse, was then designing equipment to operate at 60hz. Bell could have followed suit, but instead he chose the 50hz favored by his company’s European affiliate, AEG. With his decision, Bell unwittingly locked Southern California into a 50hz frequency.

Converting electronics to work with the 50hz standard used in Southern California required a lot of human intervention.  Source: Gizmodo

Within the year General Electric made the decision to follow Westinghouse and switch over to 60hz, which meant that the rest of the nation’s entire power grid would pulse in “three-phase AC” harmony. As an early adopter, however, Southern California was left behind. And then with so much equipment built for compatibility with the 50hz cycle, switching to the emerging 60hz standard was simply cost-prohibitive. For decades, then, Southern California was an electrical enclave. Though its political borders were marked in official atlases, crossing into Southern California’s invisible electricity boundary had very real consequences for manufacturers and consumers alike. Some electrical appliances worked at both frequencies, but for frequency-sensitive products manufacturers had to create special 50hz models just to compete in the Southern California market. And when newcomers moved into the region from outside, they had to pay to have their old devices converted, or simply bought new ones that would work on the 50hz grid.

View looking north on Long Beach Avenue at 42nd Street. Overhead lines ran up and down both sides of the street (power lines on the left and telephone lines on the right). Overhead utilitarian streetlights straddle the street between the lines. Source: Water and Power Associates

In 1945, Southern California Edison—the region’s largest electric utility—finally decided to harmonize its grid with the rest of the nation’s. Consumers were buying too many frequency-sensitive appliances, industrial customers were having trouble finding 50hz equipment for their factories, and the Los Angeles Bureau of Power and Light had already converted in 1936 in order to accept power from the Hoover Dam 60hz generators.  However, conversion wasn’t as simple as flipping a switch. SoCal Edison rolled out the new 60hz alternating-current frequency to its 765,000 customers in nine stages over three years, taking care that its supply of the two frequencies always matched the demand. It retrofitted its transmission equipment. And it set up “clock exchange depots” across the region where customers could bring their old 50hz appliances for free adjustments and exchanges. (The final tally: 475,000 clocks, 380,000 lighting fixtures, and 58,000 refrigerators.) All told, the conversion from 50 to 60hz cost Southern California Edison $34.4 million—more than a third of its annual gross revenue—but on October 27, 1948, Southern California finally pulsed in unison with the rest of the United States.

Reworking clocks to operate on 60 instead of 50 Hz. Source:  Telechron

It is possible that the energy industry is on the verge of a similar transformation today.  Indeed, many utilities are reevaluating and reconfiguring the way they generate, store, and distribute energy. The energy landscape as we know it is changing. And once again innovation is the catalyst. New technologies are a driving force behind this industry-wide shift. Advances in distributed energy resources and energy storage products, coupled with lower costs, support the incorporation of renewable energy sources and enable an array of new grid architectures. A changing regulatory climate and mounting public concern over sustainability have further accelerated the transition.  Furthermore, innovations in energy data management have increased the quality and accuracy of data available to energy users and have successfully converted it into actionable information. Device interoperability and the Internet of Things have enhanced efficiency programs and put control at the consumers’ fingertips.

Consumers are not the only ones who confront new opportunities. With focused efficiency efforts and knowledge-based decision-making, utilities are growing smarter about energy consumption and taking measures to offset our usage. For instance, “net zero energy” buildings – structures that produce enough energy with integrated renewables to offset their usage – offer a clear technical blueprint for engineering the sustainable building, while water-loop-heat-pumps offer optimization strategies for buildings trying to achieve net zero energy. These innovative “new zero energy” buildings are just one way that the energy paradigm is being redefined.

It is an exhilarating moment in history — much like the example of Los Angeles in the early 20th Century, today is another case in which the convergence of old and new technologies leads an entire industry toward more dynamic business models and more intelligent energy solutions.


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