For more than a century, the interplay between private, investor-owned electric utilities and government regulators has shaped the electric power industry in the United States. Provision of an essential service to largely dependent consumers invited government oversight and ever more sophisticated market intervention. The industry has sought to manage, coopt, and profit from government regulation. In The Power Brokers, Jeremiah Lambert maps this complex interaction from the late 19th century to the present day.
Lambert's narrative focuses on seven important industry players: Samuel Insull, the principal industry architect and prime mover; David Lilienthal, chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), who waged a desperate battle for market share; Don Hodel, who presided over the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) in its failed attempt to launch a multiplant nuclear power program; Paul Joskow, the MIT economics professor who foresaw a restructured and competitive electric power industry; Enron's Ken Lay, master of political influence and market rigging; Amory Lovins, a pioneer proponent of sustainable power; and Jim Rogers, head of Duke Energy, a giant coal-fired utility threatened by decarbonization. Lambert tells how Insull built an empire in a regulatory vacuum and how the government entered the electricity marketplace by making cheap hydropower available through the TVA. He describes the failed overreach of the BPA, the rise of competitive electricity markets, Enron's market manipulation, Lovins' radical vision of a decentralized industry powered by renewables, and Rogers' remarkable effort to influence cap-and-trade legislation.
Lambert shows how the power industry has sought to use regulatory change to preserve or secure market dominance and how rogue players have gamed imperfectly restructured electricity markets. Integrating regulation and competition in this industry has proven a difficult experiment.
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Interesting narrative of a complex industry
Narration felt a bit folksly given the serious, non-fiction subject matter. I thought the forced accents were a bit much. Also, while I'm sure it's clear in the visual presentation, there are several sections (i.e. the intro chapter) where the narrative structure is unclear.
Some of the early chapters share some overlap with The Age of Edison, while some others overlap with The Quest. I have not read anything else with this type of longitudinal review of the electric industry.
I am not sure the narrator was the best choice for this book. In particular, I would not have recommended assuming the presumed accents of the individuals quoted from in the book.
Some of the early chapters, particularly those discussing struggles versus public and private utilities, felt particularly subjective. There was much focus on the political and legal tensions of the era with relatively little discussion of the technical aspects of the industry, the societal impacts of electrification, or many other facets which I believe would have been interesting. I thought Mr. Lambert made the right decision in developing the narrative around specific figures in the electric industry, though the character development was not sufficient for me to shed a tear when [spoiler alert] Sam Insull was extradited nor when Ken Lay had a heart attack. I was closest to shedding a tear following the failure of the federal cap and trade legislation.
It is clear that Mr. Lambert has had significant experience and engagement in the industry. I appreciate his efforts in sharing some of his perspectives and experience as (I presume) an energy attorney in this book. It was an interesting perspective and many of the issues present in the book are echoed in utility regulation today.
- N. Pappas