In the late 1990s, the formerly staid and monopolistic electric utility industry entered an era of freewheeling competition and deregulation, allowing American consumers to buy electricity from any company offering it. In this book, Richard F. Hirsh explains how and why this radical restructuring has occurred.
Hirsh starts by describing the successful campaign waged by utility managers in the first decade of the twentieth century to protect their industry from competition. The regulated system that emerged had the unanticipated consequence of endowing utility managers with great political and economic power. Seven decades later, a series of largely unanticipated events, including technological stagnation in traditional generating equipment, the 1973 energy crisis, and the rise of the environmental movement, undermined the managers' control of the system. New players, such as academics, environmental advocates, politicians, and potential competitors, wrested control from power company managers by challenging utilities' standing as "natural monopolies" and by questioning whether their firms provided universal benefits. In other words, the once-closed system came under increasing pressure to transform itself.
Hirsh follows the flow of power as this transformation occurred. He also examines the relationship between technological change and regulation, showing how innovations such as cogeneration and renewable energy technologies stimulated questions about the value of government oversight of the system. And he shows how the increasing prominence of ideas such as conservation, energy efficiency, and free markets helped propel the system toward open competition.
Though the new electric utility system is still in its infancy, Hirsh's perceptive account of its birth will help readers think more rationally about its future.
About the Author
Richard F. Hirsh is Professor of History and of Science and Technology Studies at Virginia Tech.