The Larger Picture Chester Electric Power Station - PECO Energy, Chester Pennsylvania
Chester Station underwent three primary phases of development between 1917 and 1942. During this dynamic and formative period in the electric utility industry, the company's most significant innovations arguably came outside the field of power plant design. Philadelphia Electric pioneered interconnection across state lines and became the first major urban utility to convert its entire system to alternating current. In September, 1927, the company signed an agreement with Public Service Electric & Gas Company of New Jersey and Pennsylvania Power & Light Company to form the "Pennsylvania-New Jersey Interconnection" (PNJ). Philadelphia Electric had supplied neighboring electric companies such as the East Pennsylvania Gas & Electric Company and the Philadelphia Suburban Gas & Electric Company with electricity for several years, but the PNJ contract marked the first formal arrangement between interstate utilities to pool power and coordinate future construction.
Significantly, the PNJ agreement concentrated control of the regional interconnection in a few private hands. A committee of three representatives, one from each company, would negotiate the grand strategies of the regional power pool. Although Congress checked the growth of monopolies in energy-related industries by passing the 1935 Public Utility Holding Company Act and expanding federal regulation and involvement in power generation, private utilities successfully resisted government proposals for a national grid based on the British system. Interconnection in the United States was to be directed by private utilities. Ultimately expanded several times between 1956 and 1982 to include utilities from neighboring states, the PNJ pact served as an evolving model for the regional power pools that currently comprise the bulwark of the nation's electric distribution and transmission systems.
In the mid-twenties, Philadelphia Electric also embarked on an ambitious program to eliminate direct-current service in its system. As of 1920, the former Edison system had ceased to generate the direct current used in downtown Philadelphia; instead, it converted alternating current from Philadelphia Electric's main stations. Troubled by the inefficiency and expense of this process, operating engineer Horace Liversidge proposed a ten-year, nine million- dollar project to shift the direct-current system to alternating current. Philadelphia Electric president Joseph McCall initially rejected the proposal, but approved it when the cost of maintaining the old system began to mount. Upon hearing of the plan, Chicago utility czar Samuel Insull, backed by several other executives, strongly advised against the conversion, stating emphatically that it would not work. Although McCall vacillated, the program was eventually carried out, and in 1935 the last direct-current customer accepted the change. Philadelphia Electric proceeded with the project at considerable risk, encountering technical problems, substantial costs and criticism from industry leaders. These obstacles revealed the uncertainty that still surrounded ACs ability to completely supplant DC in the mid-1920s. By demonstrating the feasibility of such a project, Philadelphia Electric set an example eventually followed by many urban utilities, ending the use of Thomas Edison's hallowed system in the United States.
Interconnection and conversion to single-current service were methods Philadelphia Electric used to meet power demands it had helped to create. In addition to soliciting industrial customers, the utility aggressively promoted residential use of electricity through sales and advertising drives. Since 1908, the Philadelphia Electric Supply Department served as a showcase and clearinghouse for electric appliances. Here, consumers could learn how their lives might be improved by the latest electric refrigerator, range, washing machine and, in the 1930s, by air conditioning. Philadelphia Electric also instituted a bulb replacement program, whereby burned-out bulbs were replaced free of charge to encourage greater use of electric light. A similar program exchanged old direct-current motors for new alternating-current ones as part of the conversion to alternating current. Efforts to popularize the use of appliances were aimed particularly at women and included a series of "electrical teas," a "Home Electric Demonstration," and a "mammoth" cooking school with an "all-electric kitchen and refrigeration show." The sales department organized "information blitzes" such as "Electrical Prosperity Week" and "Better Light - Better Sight" campaign to draw attention to the benefits of electricity, and devised methods for utilizing "virtually the entire Philadelphia Electric force to promote the sale of load-building appliances." The company's contemporary advertising slogan, "if it isn't electric, it isn't modern," nicely encapsulated a multi-faceted effort to equate progressive lifestyles with electrical technologies. This sort of boosterism aided the American electric utility industry's successful drive to create a domestic culture of consumption. By the century's end, American energy consumption per capita stood at two and a half times that of the next closest nation.
Chester Station was conceived during an era of intense debate over the ownership and control of electric utilities. At Philadelphia Electric, architecture and engineering became important venues for demonstrating that private ownership best served the public interest. Technologically, Chester Station was a studied balance of efficiency, reliability, and economy. Its design pointed the direction for the industry by rationalizing and standardizing electrical service, and centralizing control of plant operations, load dispatching and fuel distribution. Informed by lessons learned at Schuylkill and Chester, Philadelphia Electric expanded its network to a regional scale and exerted nationwide influence on the industry. While changing technology and business practices made this rise possible, neither evolved in isolation from social forces. No matter what form change took, it had to appear to support Samuel Insull's claim that "the ambition, experience and initiative of this industry, working under economic law and under the American plan of encouraging private enterprise, are still the surest guaranties of 'super-power,' of 'giant-power,' of hydro-electric, or of any other phase of electrical development for the greatest good to the greatest number."