February 20th, 2021

The Great Conspiracy

ELECTRICITY

Earlier this week, millions of households lost power in the face of a powerful snowstorm. While these numbers are unusual, they are not new—the US suffers among the most frequent power outages of any industrialized country, concentrated especially in rural areas and the South.

In a recent paper, ABBY SPINAK analyzes the political trajectory of America's weak electrical infrastructure by comparing the underlying economic assumptions of the New Deal's Rural Electrification Administration (REA) with those of the Ontario Hydro-Electric Power Commission in Canada.

From the paper:

"In the early twentieth century, experiments in electricity were experiments in statecraft. A malleable technology with significant financing and distribution challenges, electricity was a proxy through which budding welfare states could hash out their responsibilities to the public. Early public electrification efforts became sites of deliberation about balancing urban and rural needs, industrial development, and the public interest. Through electrification programs, policymakers in industrializing countries proposed and tested ideas of economic citizenship, the proper role for government, and the limits of private enterprise. Vibrant forums within and between industrializing nations intensely debated whether electricity was a right or a privilege—and where and for whom.

Why did REA power flow not quite so freely as it did in Ontario? With an explicit charter not to distinguish between private, municipal, or cooperative power companies for dispersal of loans, the REA focused on keeping rates low and distributing power to areas where it could encourage rapid economic growth. It only begrudgingly supported the use of federal loans in the construction of generating stations where power could not be purchased inexpensively enough through the private market. Despite the explicit connection of the REA to Dust Bowl mitigation efforts, its emphasis was less on protecting natural resources for the common good and more on ensuring the efficiency and sustainability of natural resources for national economic growth. In the latter case, who owned what mattered much less than how capably it would be put to use."

Link to the piece

  • "Although REA programs were planned and administered in Washington, D.C., western residents rather than New Deal administrators initiated most of the region's rural electrification projects." Brian Q. Cannon on "Rural Electrical Cooperatives and the New Deal." Link. & Carl Kitchens and Price Fishback examine "The Spatial Impact of the Rural Electrification Administration 1935-1940." Link.
  • "Africa is the most undersupplied region in the world when it comes to electricity, but its economies are utterly dependent on it." David A. McDonald introduces a book of collected essays on inequality and electrification across the continent. (Also inside: river privatization and hydropower, nuclear energy in South Africa, corporate power in Uganda.) Link.
  • Wuyuan Peng Jiahua Pan with a history of rural electrification in China. Link. And from Jonathan Coopersmith's 2016 book: "Electrification transformed capital markets, the military, manufacturing, the spatial geography of cities, and many other facets of Russian life." Link.
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