We remember Thomas Edison as the inventor of the incandescent light bulb, but he deserves credit for something much larger, an even more singular invention that profoundly changed the way the world works: the modern electric utility industry. Edison’s light bulb was the first to work within a system where a utility generated electricity and distributed it to customers for lighting. The story of how electric utilities went within one generation from prototype to an indispensable part of most Americans’ lives is a story about the relationships between political and technological change.
John L. Neufeld offers a comprehensive historical treatment of the economics that shaped electric utilities. Compared with most industries, the organization of the electric utility industry is not—and cannot be—economically efficient. Most industries are kept by law in a state of fair competition, but the capital necessary to start an electric company—generators, transmission and distribution systems, and land and buildings—is so substantial that few companies can enter the market and compete. Therefore, the natural state of the electric utility industry since its inception has been a monopoly subject to government oversight. These characteristics of electric utilities—and electricity’s importance—have created over time sharp political controversies, and changing public policies have dramatically changed the industry’s structure to an extent matched by few other industries. Neufeld outlines the struggles that shaped the industry’s development, and shows how the experience of electric utilities provides insight into the design of economic institutions, including today’s new large-scale markets.