Pearl Street Station: The Power Plant That Started It All

Pearl Street Station

6-18-2015 Pearl Street Station: The Power Plant That Started It All

It’s almost impossible to find a place in the United States where power lines don’t interrupt the horizon. Countries like China and India are choking under pollution from coal power plants. Climate change is a serious threat. Renewables are making progress, but they still must fight the coal and fossil fuel industries. How’d we get here?

It all started with a man and his determination to create a safe, reliable source of light.

In 1879, Thomas Edison revealed the exciting fruits of his labors – the first practical incandescent electric light bulb. Now, all he needed to do was figure out how to put light bulbs into houses and get electricity to those bulbs. What happened next paved the way for modern power plants. Thomas Edison developed the Pearl Street Station.

Planning and Preparing

In 1880, Edison formed the Edison Electric Illuminating Co. of New York. The next year, the company was granted a license to install wiring under the streets around Pearl Street in a one square mile district. The wires would deliver electricity to the homes of Edison’s customers.

Edison knew he was going to use steam dynamos, what call generators today, but he encountered a problem early on. There weren’t any dynamos powerful enough to provide the amount of electricity Edison needed.

He didn’t let that stop him. Edison developed a more powerful dynamo, which he called the Jumbo Dynamo. It was a 27-ton machine that produced 100kW, enough to power 1,200 lights. Edison’s dynamo was four times as large as any previously available dynamo.

Thomas Edison's Jumbo Dynamo on display at the Henry Ford Museum. Courtesy of the Henry Ford.

Thomas Edison’s Jumbo Dynamo on display at the Henry Ford Museum. Courtesy of the Henry Ford.

In total, Edison used six Jumbo Dynamos to light up the one square mile of New York City that was serviced by the Pearl Street Station.

Coming Online

Pearl Street Station

By July of 1882, the underground cables were laid and the station was getting ready to make history. On September 4, 1882, Edison and his chief electrical officer, John W. Lieb synchronized their watches.

Edison and a group of prominent customers crowded into the Wall Street office of J. Pierpont Morgan. At 3 p.m. Lieb threw the main circuit breaker switch at the Pearl Street Station. This turned on dynamo number nine, the only one used in the test run. Edison switched on the light in Morgan’s office. The Pearl Street was operational.

By October 1, 1882, Edison had 59 customers who received electricity from Pearl Street. One year later that number had grown to 472. However, despite the growth of customers, Edison was plagued by the problem that still haunts utility companies today: high startup costs.

Between the property costs in Manhattan, the construction costs of wiring, and the operating expenses (like the huge amount of coal needed to generate steam for the dynamos), the Pearl Street Station lost money until 1884. Two years after it opened, the Pearl Street Station finally turned a profit.

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AC/DC Debate

Edison’s success didn’t last long, however. People began demanding electricity for uses other than lighting, and they wanted the electricity to be delivered over longer distances. Direct current (DC) electricity, which Edison used in the Pearl Street Station, wasn’t the best option for this.

Nikola Tesla, Edison’s competitor, pushed for widespread adoption of alternating current (AC) electricity. Though Edison launched a valiant campaign for DC electricity, he ultimately lost. The country decided that AC was the way to go.

The Pearl Street Station continued to offer DC electricity to customer until a fire broke out on January 2, 1890. The fire claimed all but one of the Jumbo Dynamos. Number nine, the first one that powered the light in Morgan’s office, survived. It’s now on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit. It was also designated a National Historic Mechanical Engineering landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 1980.

Pearl Street Station’s Legacy

The Pearl Street Station paved the way for modern power plants. Edison proved beyond a doubt that it was possible to create a successful business around delivering electricity safely to customers. He also created a business model that has changed very little since 1882.

Utilities still incur high startup costs, which makes them reluctant to swear off their power plants before they absolutely have to. It also makes them hesitant to encourage customers to create their own electricity. However, we’ve reached a critical point in the debate on climate change.

Our energy demands must be met with cleaner alternatives because we’ve polluted the atmosphere for too long. That’s also part of Pearl Street’s legacy.

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