This issue features the fifth in a series of essays celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Infrastructure and Regulated Industries Section. In “A Century Plus of Power and Light,” Casey Wren, Mark Strain, and Everett Britt trace the growth of electric power—and the involvement of lawyers in the process—from Thomas Edison’s first commercial central power plant on Pearl Street in Manhattan in 1882 to the current day. Our authors tell the story of how the commercialization of electricity transformed the way people lived, as well as the practice of law. Electric utility bond lawyers created the first open-ended mortgages to “finance the phenomenal growth of capital,” political lawyers were “necessary intermediaries between the growing industry and the state,” and labor lawyers “mediated the often contentious relationships between management and the emerging unions.” But among the most valuable legal specialists, according to the authors, were the public utility administrative lawyers, “who dealt with the various regulatory authorities that almost all states established in the first two decades of the twentieth century to supervise the accounting, financial, territorial, and rate aspects of electric utility service.”
One hundred plus years later, the idea of “public utility law,” as the Section acknowledged with its name change, is too narrow to reflect what practitioners in the electric and other infrastructure industries actually do. Lawyers were present at most, if not all, of the technological, political, and regulatory developments of the past century in electric power. The enactment of Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935 and Federal Power Act of 1935 spawned the specialty of federal electric utility practice, “focusing on administrative law and the intricacies of compliance with PUHCA and wholesale power regulations.” The Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA) led to the creation of the independent power industry and renewable energy bar. When the wholesale market for electricity began to fully emerge in the 1990s, lawyers were involved with pitching the new wholesale markets and the possibility of retail competition to state regulatory commissions.
What will the next century bring? According to the authors, electric power “will remain the muscle of mankind, and lawyers will continue to play their essential role in representing people and whatever institutions are in place to provide what will still be, in whatever form, an essential public service.”