In this book Richard Munson looks at the electricity business from its beginnings in the late 19th century and reviews the whole business of making power. He does not confine himself, as so many others have recently, to the failures of nuclear power or to the wonders of other sources of energy.
Munson is no literary craftsman. He's a lobbyist for alternative energy sources, an advocate for change and diversity, but his book is not a radical tract. Rather, it is a readable, fair and, for the most part, easy-to-understand outline history of the biggest enterprise in the land.
The book will make a lot of people mad -- producers and consumers of electricity alike.
The more perceptive leaders of the electricity industry have known for years that their joy ride with state and federal subsidies was running out of steam; that, sooner or later, a better educated public would discover that it did not have to put up with dirty smokestacks, ugly power pylons and sudden, prolonged blackouts. And neither did it have to swallow the industry's extravagant claims about the magic of the atom, about "electricity too cheap to meter" from nuclear power.
The book will chill consumers as they learn the extent of the nasty shocks about to be released from the power makers' store. Munson lists 50 utilities that are about to give 35 million households rate hikes of up to 180 percent. Munson will make you angry about the power makers -- if you aren't already.
The introduction promises a full-blown history, but the book is rather a series of brief encounters with the nuts and bolts of the industry -- its inventors, its empire builders, its relationship with local and national politics and its links with Wall Street. The biographical sketches are short and to the point. A few of them are well-known names -- Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse. Others are not household names, but nevertheless mammoths in the power business, such as Samuel Insull, the wily "Empire Builder," who controlled electric service in 6,000 communities in 32 states in the 1920s.
Where Munson makes judgments, he is fair. For example, he writes that Insull and the other empire builders "were neither devilish businessmen nor financial geniuses. They had constructed efficient power facilities and modernized an essential American industry. But they also built a financial house of cards that initially brought great wealth to a few and eventually delivered financial ruin to thousands."
Munson is correct to take the reader swiftly through the familiar failures of nuclear power -- Three Mile Island and the spectacular 1983 $2.25 billion default of the Washington Public Power Supply System (commonly known as Whoops), giving the reader instead a primer on exactly how the industry takes advantage of the government's tax breaks -- "tax normalization," the industry calls it. He shows how utilities assess your fuel bill today, and how they might do so to your greater advantage tomorrow. It takes a lot to get the average citizen interested in power production, but Munson succeeds admirably.
Spreading the word about how the industry really works and getting consumers interested and participating is one way to prevent the technical failures and the commercial shenanigans of the past from recurring. The issues are complicated and require study; there are no easy technical or commercial answers. But the problems are changing. As Munson writes, "The issue is no longer whether the public interest is better served by profit-seeking monopolies or by government-owned monopolies. Today's consumers and politicians must decide whether regulation or competition promises lower costs and more reliable electrical service."