Cogeneration vs. monopoly electric utility service, circa 1909

Michael Giberson

The Isolated Plant magazine published “A letter from a New York Correspondent,” in their August 1909 edition:

Mr. Editor:

From the viewpoint of one of the “common people,” the recent issues of your magazine have been striking fire with every telling blow…  The following incident is mentioned as a bit of local history.

Two downtown office buildings adjoining each other on the same side of the street, and carrying the same class of tenants, were not operating under sufficiently even costs.  One of them had its own electric power plant and the other used Edison service.  The man who operated his own plant even had a little power to spare and closed a two years’ contract with the other agent to supply the latter’s building with light at a rate considerably lower than the street service.  A contractor installed a 3 inch loricated conduit carrying three double braid conductors between the generator switchboard through the foundation wall to one side of a three-pole double-throw service switch previously installed.

This switch had been used to supply Edison break down service when the building operated its own plant.  The wiring was installed in full accord with the National Code as adopted by the N. Y. Board of Fire Underwriters, and a certificate of approval was received from the city department.  The contractor received a “violation,” however, from the Fire Underwriters, and any attempt to secure a committed statement from the latter board as to the code rule violated was futile.  This was evidently somewhat peculiar, the contractor had performed his work according to the rules of the board as publicly printed and circulated, yet a certificate of approval was withheld, and he could not receive his payment for the work.  The inspector was called on, he was non-committal … the Chief Inspector was non-commital … [The] Superintendent … quite abrubtly stated that his board would not approve the running of an electric power service through a party line; this ruling being the result of an agreement between his board and the N. Y. Edison Co.

Neither contractor nor agents could understand how any such mutual agreement could affect the fire risk….

The N. Y. Edison Co. also got busy after the contractor and threatened to send him to jail for “interfering with their meters,” which of course was not the case and the contractor was not molested; threat was also made to discontinue the [Edison Co.] service to the elevators, but it also passed over.

Both buildings secured independent insurance, the contractor got his money, and each agent fulfilled their two years’ agreement.

C. J. H.

At a time when cogeneration, smart grids, and decentralized energy resources are creating challenges around the fringe of standard regulated retail power service, it is interesting to see how the battled played out a century ago, when state regulation of monopoly regulated utilities was new and competition between central station power and the isolated plant was ongoing.

The Isolated Plant magazine has been digitized by Google Books.  See also the related post of a week ago, “The central station and the isolated plant.”


3 thoughts on “Cogeneration vs. monopoly electric utility service, circa 1909

  1. Ugh! But for the grammar, this conversation could have easily happened in 2009. Smart Grids notwithstanding, we’re not that much smarter today than we were then…

  2. The difference now is that the legal authority of the state is much more clearly aligned in support of central station power companies (regulated monopolies) and against the ability of isolated plants that would wish to sell excess power to their neighbors.

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