EDISON VERSUS TESLA FOR ARCHITECTS: BUILDINGS, ELECTRICITY AND THE FUTURE
by Jalel Sager
To wave or not to wave, that is the question.
The debate between DC (direct current) and AC (alternating current) is an old one, stretching back to Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, two inventors working in the United States at the dawn of the electricity age, beginning in the late 19th century. Edison favoured DC power, believing its simplicity and safety outweighed the losses that occurred when transmitting low-voltage DC power over distances. (Edison famously electrified a series of animals in public demonstrations as a testament to the dangers of AC power.) Tesla, however, favoured AC power, as it could be easily transformed to higher voltages that enabled the transmission without high line losses. AC was also well suited to physical characteristics of spinning turbines, the central element of thermal- and hydropowered generators.
Tesla won, at least for utility power, with the model of enormous central stations running power to communities far away. The decentralised, community-scale Edison model would need to wait another hundred years for more favourable technologies and economics. The 20th century developed around centralization and combustion-based technologies. The 21st, however, favours the Internet model: a network of decentralised and renewable technologies, such as solar photovoltaics and battery storage, all in communication—an opening for DC systems.This discussion, formerly limited to electrical engineers, has now crept into the buildings world. If we have the technology and conditions to start again with DC, why not? While it may seem like a blue-sky idea, tests of dual AC/DC micro-grids—small-scale grids that power campuses, districts, and communities—have begun.
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