Aluminum in the utility grid - and beyond
Aluminum’s use in utility grid transmission and distribution networks increased rapidly after World War II. The metal weighs half of the equivalent capacity of copper and was advantageous for the construction steps of pulling wire, suspension and support. From there, aluminum wiring use spread downstream to service drops, service entrances and building wire feeders. Aluminum has cost and weight advantages over copper and is the preferred material for electricity transmission and distribution uses today. Due to aluminum’s superior conductivity-to-weight ratio compared with copper, the metal is now used for wiring in residences, buildings, aircraft and appliances.
Advantages as an electrical conduit material
Aluminum has also been adapted for use as rigid electrical conduit. (An electrical conduit is a tubing system used for protection and routing of electrical wiring.) Unlike steel conduit, rigid aluminum does not spark, resists corrosion and will not rust. These properties of aluminum are vitally important for electrical applications within coal mines, grain elevators and refineries (where sparking can lead to catastrophic outcomes).
The History of Aluminum Wiring
In 1882, Edison Electric opened the world’s first steam-powered electricity generating station. This station supplied a number of local consumers with electricity for lighting. At that time, aluminum was considered a precious metal and valued higher than both gold and silver. Copper, having been known to mankind for thousands of years, was readily available as conductive material. For Edison’s station and throughout the early development of national power grids, copper was the practical choice. Aluminum was first used for electrical utility applications in the early 1900s. For example, as reported in The Electrician journal, September 7, 1900: “ The North-Western Elevated Railway Co. of Chicago have used 150,000 lbs. aluminum to equip their overhead track in Chicago, and the line was started with the new power in the spring of this year.”
A Rare Find
When the first electrical transmission network was built (Edison, 1882), aluminum was considered a precious metal and more valuable than both gold and silver. Today, aluminum is a LEED-favored material for construction and operation of high-performance green buildings. Aluminum wiring requires minimal energy to recycle and loses none of its properties during the recycling process.