Public and private utilities provide services such as electricity, gas, telephone, water, and sewerage treatment. Most of the utilities in the United States are privately owned, but are regulated by state and federal governments because of their monopolistic nature. In recent times, however, the government oversight that was demanded by the reformers of the Progressive period in American history (1900–1920) has been undermined by the proponents of deregulation.
Perhaps the most important utility in the United States during the late twentieth century was the electric utilities industry. Electricity could be generated in power plants using fuels such as coal, fuel oil, nuclear energy, and natural gas. The uses of electricity are seemingly endless and originate with the period of the great inventors of the nineteenth century. The electric light bulb was invented by Thomas Edison (1847–1931) in 1879, and the following year, he founded an electric power generating plant. Soon his company was challenged by George Westinghouse (1846–1914) and his United States Electric Light Company. Growth in the industry continued steadily through World War II (1939–1945). By 1951 nuclear energy was used to produce electricity, and the 1960s saw an increase in the use of nuclear reactors. These advances, however, were accompanied by occasional mishaps. A serious accident in 1979 at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania created a credibility problem for the nuclear power industry, and new federal regulations in the 1970s focused on conservation. In the wake of escalating gasoline prices resulting from the OPEC oil embargo, alternative power sources such as water, wind, and solar energy were widely encouraged to produce electricity. Analysts predicted high output for the electric utilities in the twenty-first century, as the U.S. government was expected to continue deregulating the industry to stimulate competition and lower prices.
Coal gas (gas made from coal) was a popular source of energy until the mid-twentieth century. It is made by converting coal into combustible gases that can then be used as a fuel or as a component of chemicals and fertilizer. Coal provided the most common fuel gas for residential and commercial use for most of the nineteenth century through the 1940s, when consumers turned to cheaper natural gas.
Natural gas is primarily comprised of methane and used as fuel for homes and businesses. It was adopted as a cheap and clean fuel source. In the late nineteenth century natural gas was used for city streetlights and for cooking. In the period between World War II (1939–1945) and the 1960s, utility companies laid large grids of natural gas pipelines. The use of natural gas continued to grow during the late twentieth century, in part due to the deregulation of the industry which thereby resulted in lower prices.
Water systems are yet another important utility. Clean and healthy drinking water is among one of the most important elements in human society. Business and industry use large amounts of water to fight fires and irrigate crops. In the late twentieth century most water utilities were publicly owned. The beginnings of the modern water system in the United States date back to the late nineteenth century. As was the case with other utilities, population growth after World War II brought about an increased demand for water. Several federal regulations during the twentieth century, such as the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 (amended in 1996), helped set higher standards for the water supply. Two of the most notable water utilities in the United States during the late 1990s were the American Water Works—the largest water utility owned by investors— and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which provided more drinking water than any other company in the United States at that time.
Wastewater and sewer systems are yet another component of public utilities. Wastewater treatment systems are primarily public, non-profit facilities that serve a local or regional area and may handle both residential and industrial wastes. Industrial wastewater is often treated at the point where it is generated and subsequently released into natural water systems or into the nearest public facility. Many homes in the United States still use small separate facilities such as septic tanks.
Sewer systems in the United States date back to the mid-nineteenth century. The importance of sanitary treatment and disposal of sewage was underscored by the deadly cholera epidemics that periodically plagued the country from 1832 through the 1850s. By the 1870s extensive construction of sewerage treatment plants was under way. The federal government imposed regulations on this industry from the mid to late twentieth century. There was renewed interest, as well, in the privatization of this industry, with some projections indicating that there may be one private company for each public facility by the year 2020.
Another utility was born with Claude Chappe's invention of the semaphor telegraph in 1792, which paved the way for the telecommunications industry. Telexes and telegrams were used to transmit messages in only one day. They remained popular until the 1970s, when they began to be replaced by facsimile machines and, in the 1990s, by electronic mail through the Internet. By 1994 only two telegraph carriers were still in operation. Telegraph industry leader Western Union Corporation began to add more modern methods of communications to its operations in an effort to remain competitive at the end of the twentieth century.
One of the most common aspects of the industry is the telephone. This 1870s invention by Alexander Graham Bell (1847–1922) profoundly changed the cultural and material complexion of the world. Based, in part, on technology spin-offs from the defense industry, the telephone eventually freed itself of telephone wires and evolved into the two-way radiotelephone. This category eventually included cellular phones, pagers, satellite and microwave facilities, and fiber optic lines. In the late 1990s the telecommunications industry was revolutionized by deregulation with the Telecommunications Act of 1996. While deregulation was designed to stimulate more competition, critics claimed that rather than improve service or drop rates the industry was moving in the direction of powerful monopolies.
The continued presence in some form of most of the components of the public utilities seems assured. Americans in the twenty-first century will undoubtedly continue to want all of the comforts and convenience that utilities provide. Deregulation of public utilities continued throughout the 1990s. It is, however, unclear whether this strategy will result in the positive outcomes of greater competition, cheaper prices, and environmentally safe management of our natural resources.
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Allegheny Power System, Inc.
American Electric Power Company, Inc.
British Gas plc
Carolina Power & Light Company
Centerior Energy Corporation
Central and South West Corporation
Chubu Electric Power Company, Incorporated
CMS Energy Corporation
The Columbia Gas System, Inc.
Commonwealth Edison Company
Consolidated Edison Company of New York, Inc.
The Detroit Edison Company
Dominion Resources, Inc.
Duke Power Company
Electricité de France
Ente Nazionale per L’energia Elettrica
Florida Progress Corporation
FPL Group, Inc.
General Public Utilities Corporation
Générale des Eaux Group
Hokuriku Electric Power Company
Houston Industries Incorporated
The Kansai Electric Power Co., Inc.
Kyushu Electric Power Company Inc.
Long Island Lighting Company
Lyonnaise des Eaux-Dumez
N.V. Nederlandse Gasunie
New England Electric System
Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation
Nova Corporation of Alberta
Ohio Edison Company
Osaka Gas Co., Ltd.
Pacific Gas and Electric Company
Panhandle Eastern Corporation
Pennsylvania Power & Light Company
Philadelphia Electric Company
Public Service Enterprise Group Incorporated
San Diego Gas & Electric Company
Shikoku Electric Power Company, Inc.
Tohoku Electric Power Company, Inc.
The Tokyo Electric Power Company, Incorporated
Tokyo Gas Co., Ltd.
TransCanada PipeLines Limited
Transco Energy Company
Union Electric Company
Vereinigte Elektrizitätswerke Westfalen AG
AIR & WATER TECHNOLOGIES CORPORATION
AMERICAN WATER WORKS COMPANY
ATLANTA GAS LIGHT COMPANY
ATLANTIC ENERGY, INC.
BRITISH NUCLEAR FUELS PLC
BROOKLYN UNION GAS
CENTRAL HUDSON GAS AND ELECTRICITY CORPORATION
CENTRAL MAINE POWER
CINCINNATI GAS & ELECTRIC COMPANY
CITY PUBLIC SERVICE
THE CONSUMERS’ GAS COMPANY LTD.
EQUITABLE RESOURCES, INC.
GULF STATES UTILITIES COMPANY
HONGKONG ELECTRIC COMPANY LTD.
ILLINOIS POWER COMPANY
IPALCO ENTERPRISES, INC.
KANSAS CITY POWER & LIGHT COMPANY
KENTUCKY UTILITIES COMPANY
LG&E ENERGY CORP.
MIDWEST RESOURCES INC.
NATIONAL FUEL GAS COMPANY
NIPSCO INDUSTRIES, INC.
NEW YORK STATE ELECTRIC AND GAS CORPORATION
OGLETHORPE POWER CORPORATION
OKLAHOMA GAS AND ELECTRIC COMPANY
PEOPLES ENERGY CORPORATION
PINNACLE WEST CAPITAL CORPORATION
PORTLAND GENERAL CORPORATION
POTOMAC ELECTRIC POWER COMPANY
PUBLIC SERVICE COMPANY OF COLORADO
PUBLIC SERVICE COMPANY OF NEW MEXICO
PUGET SOUND POWER AND LIGHT COMPANY
ROCHESTER GAS AND ELECTRIC CORPORATION
SOUTHWESTERN PUBLIC SERVICE COMPANY
TECO ENERGY, INC.
TRANSALTA UTILITIES CORPORATION
TUCSON ELECTRIC POWER COMPANY
UTILICORP UNITED INC.
WASHINGTON WATER POWER COMPANY
WHEELABRATOR TECHNOLOGIES, INC.
WISCONSIN ENERGY CORPORATION
Utilities ★½ Getting Even 1983 (PG)
A frustrated social worker enlists the help of his friends in his efforts to impress an attractive policewoman by taking on a large corporate utility. 94m/C VHS . CA Robert Hays, Brooke Adams, John Marley, Ben Gordon, Helen Burns, Helene Winston; D: Harvey Hart.