At the fantastic economic history website EH.net, I recently reviewed John Neufeld’s new book, Selling Power: Economics, Policy, and Electric Utilities Before 1940. TL;DR: if you’re interested in the electricity industry you should read this book, even if you aren’t an academic. You’ll gain an important historical perspective on how we got to where we are, and that perspective can inform how we design forward-looking policy in the face of dynamic technological and economic change today.
Selling Power is a thoughtful and well-written history with primarily a technological and accounting/finance focus for analyzing utility business models and public policy. It leaves unanswered questions and opportunities to analyze this history by applying other theoretical lenses to the political economy of utility business models and public policy. Its detailed and rigorous treatment of primary sources will make it a valuable resource for scholars who want to incorporate electricity into their work on this period, for economic historians who want to grapple with some of these same questions applying different theoretical frameworks, and for scholars and policy makers analyzing the twenty-first-century challenges of technological dynamism and political economy who want to understand the historical foundations of this industry.
Neufeld’s analysis of policy is incomplete because he does not draw on political economy and public choice theory, which would have given him a richer model for understanding the phenomena he analyzes. But that leaves room for other scholars to build on the foundational work he has done here.