The power system of yore was a jungle. In cities like New York and Chicago, dozens of companies haphazardly strung up their own wires, each carrying its own special blend of electricity. In the United States, Samuel Insull, who began working for Edison in the 1880s, recognized the need for standardization. By the 1920s, he owned a significant share of Chicago's electric power industry, which he made extremely profitable through uniformity, scale, and shady financial practices. His company imploded during the Great Depression, and by the 1930s he had fled to Europe with a villainous reputation. He was acquitted of all charges shortly thereafter but died in 1938 with a debt of nearly $14 million.
Progressive or scoundrel, Samuel Insull's actions paved the way for the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935, which effectively made power systems government-regulated, vertically integrated monopolies. Over the next forty years, the power system developed into the dependable infrastructure we know today. Concurrently, it became an inefficient, rigid, environmentally hostile dinosaur. In 1978, the U.S. Congress passed the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act, which forced utilities to purchase power from less expensive independent power producers at their avoided costs of generation, marking the first incursion of competition into the electricity sector in decades [1, 2]. In spurts over the next twenty years, the North American electric power system was deregulated to the applause of economists and chagrin of many engineers.
Then strange things began to happen, the most notable of which was the California Electricity Crisis [3, 4]. At the center of the crisis was the Enron scandal, and at the center of that, Kenneth Lay, perceived by some as a modern, mirrored version of Samuel Insull. Enron and its ilk gamed every aspect of the vulnerable new electricity markets, leading to extreme price volatility and blackouts.