Munson: From Edison to Enron to Casten

Michael Giberson

Richard Munson’s book From Edison to Enron provides a pretty engaging run through the history of the electric power business in the United States.  The title actually understates the scope just a bit on each end, with Munson touching briefly on developments before Thomas Edison gets involved and discussing developments after Enron’s 2001 collapse up to the book’s 2005 publication date. The book provides a good background for anyone seeking to understand the current state of the industry including the variety of state and federal regulatory experiments affecting electric power.  Advanced students of the industry will want to go much deeper than Munson does, but Munson’s book offers a good beginning.

David Sicilia offers a more penetrating and critical review of the book on, pointing out a few flaws and offering alternative interpretations of some episodes.

Sicilia highlights singles out for critique several issues related to monopolization in the power industry. He finds Munson “innaccurate or unpersuasive” on topics of economies of scale, utility regulation, and natural monopoly. I’ll agree that Munson’s discussion doesn’t compel the reader to believe, for example, that no additional economies of scale were available in the industry after 1967.  But Munson is telling a story, not arguing a legal brief, so I’m not concerned that Munson doesn’t beat every point to death with supporting arguments and data.

On this issue of economies of scale and central station power verses distributed power, however, it may bear mentioning that Munson has served as Secretary for the U.S. Combined Heat and Power Association. You can take this fact as indicating either that Munson surely knows what he is talking about, or that he has  may have some sort of financial conflict of interest. Reasonably, I think, you can conclude that his writing and his career reflect a consistent set of beliefs about the present and future of the industry.

Chapter Seven, Entrepreneurs, stands out in the book by being focused primarily on a single individual, Tom Casten, a serial entrepreneur in congeneration and perhaps not coincidently a harsh critic of monopoly regulation of electric utilities.  (By the way, both Lynne and I are fans of Casten’s entrepreneurism in electric power, e.g., see this post.) Perhaps also of note is that shortly after From Edison to Enron was published, Munson left his position as executive director of the Northeast-Midwest Institute to become a senior vice-president at Recycled Energy Development, a cogeneration project developer for which Tom Casten is chairman (and Sean Casten is president and CEO). Perhaps another reason for any reader suspicious of Munson’s narrative to see a potential conflict of interest. To me it just appears as Munson acting in concert with a consistent set of beliefs about the industry.

Whether the book tells a good story or not has little to do with Munson’s interests outside of the book. While the book has its flaws, I find it a good introduction to the history of the industry in the United States.