Leah S. Glaser is a Professor of American History and the American West at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, Connecticut, where she serves as Coordinator of the Public History Program. She is the author of Electrifying the Rural American West: Stories of Power, People, and Place (Nebraska, 2009) currently working on a book of the Interpreting History at Museums and Historic Sites series with Rowman Littlefield on energy.
It has been really hard to read the newspaper for…um… five years or so, especially to historians who see no lesson from History heeded. And recently I’m reading about more tragedy… a humanitarian crisis in Texas. Numerous articles that continue to emerge about the Texas electrical grid, and the political rhetoric for and against renewable energy. And I’m reading all this thinking, “Can someone read my book?”
Evidently, not much has changed since I started writing my dissertation in 1999. Twenty years ago, in 2000, as California faced rolling blackouts, the Enron scandal drove my research questions. The press demonized Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling as modern-day robber barons. The University of Nebraska Press published my book, Electrifying the Rural American West: Stories of Power, People and Place in 2009. Ten years later, Skilling got out of jail for multiple counts of fraud and conspiracy charges.
I’d worked for the Salt River Project, the water and electric company for central Arizona, as well as the Bureau of Reclamation, so I had already been pretty immersed in the history of power generation and electrical transmission in the west. I’d also already spent several years researching and studying communities in Arizona, and one hardly has to be observant to notice that not every community equally benefitted from reliable utility services. So, I was particularly struck by then Press Secretary Ari Fleischer’s comment, which I saw in the “perspectives” section of my May 21, 2001 edition of Newsweek, that Texan and President George W. Bush “believes that [high energy consumption] is an American way of life, and that it should be the goal of policy makers to protect that American Way of life. The American way of life is a blessed one.” It reminded me of Ronald Tobey’s argument in his New Deal era book, Technology as Freedom. Electricity was not a thing when the founders wrote the bill of rights, leaving it to the federal government to protect basic human rights, national defense, and regulate commerce. So, if electricity is essential to our American way of life, how can an essential right be left to robber barons?
Texas’s plans to deregulate its utility system to one based completely on the markets was fully in line with California’s Enron in 1999, except Enron and its deregulation policies brought down California’s system fast. When everyone else was looking to the federal government to find access to the American way of life and address disparity during the Great Depression, Texas decided to avoid federal regulation and build an independent grid. But can’t places have both local control and federal regulation? Yes. It was one of the New Deal’s most successful recovery and reform programs and it was called the Rural Electrification Administration, about which we have studied far too little.
My study on rural electrification across Arizona, across three different regions of varying demographics, landscape, and economic conditions typical of the American West shows that people can and did locally control their electrical production and distribution, especially with federal support, guidance and regulation. Regional power systems grew from communities and reflected both the places and the people who lived there. Local communities prioritized use and distribution in accordance with their own social, economic, and cultural needs, as well as their unique environmental conditions. But most communities, especially during the Great Depression, didn’t have the training and the resources. The federal government did… in the Rural Electrification Administration. Even those without access to the grid even today, the Navajo, didn’t take the federal loan for reasons of sovereignty. Yet they still aligned their distribution system with federal rural electrification standards.
But then electricity fell to political rhetoric. Opponents used the language of the Cold War to label the program socialist in order to promote the interest of private utilities. The political rhetoric continues today from those private companies, and the fossil fuel producers who supply their systems, to claim that renewable energy is unreliable. Solar energy doesn’t even necessarily depend on the fragility of power lines. Nor was the REA socialist. The government did not own the local systems. Cooperatives did. The users did. And in the majority of cases, they not only paid the federal government back the loan to build the rural lines, they shared the profits among all the users.
If you want to understand how the rest of the western region differs from Texas, read my book! But again, power systems are cultural artifacts and they reflect the people and place of Texas—at least those with economic and political power. Texas’ leaders clearly and deliberately ignored California’s experience. Deregulation has not ensured reliability. Not in the 1920s or the 2000s, and apparently still in the 2020s. The Rural Electrification Administration worked well, and in several places in the country, the cooperative model still does. But not Texas. The independent spirit and free market capitalism are so intertwined, they seem to be denying residents the American way of life. Is electricity a commodity or a right?
Maybe the marketplace should not dictate rights. My book ends with this: “History shows us that we should carefully consider the consequences before championing the idea that the marketplace alone control access to electricity through either power generation or distribution. Returning the process of electrical generation to private interests, where only profit and market fluctuation dictate the expansion of electrical systems and the rates charged to consumers, where only private companies design markets without oversight, and where ‘visionaries’ like Enron’s Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling see opportunity for market exploitation may mean that America’s ‘blessed’ way of life, however different communities define it, might well not be one that every American can share.”
My students always like to repeat the adage that we learn history so as not to repeat it. We are not learning. We are only repeating. Read my book?