The Rural Electrification Act of 1936, one of the New Deal’s proudest accomplishments, is often cited as an example of government’s ability to do good and generate progress. In 1910, nearly 50 million rural residents (over half the country) lived without electricity. By 1950, 45 million of those formerly "unhooked" were "on the grid," thanks to the REA. Or so the story goes.
Commercial electric utilities, with low voltage transmission lines and facing huge infrastructure investments for universal service, were loath to extend power to far-flung homesteads. Additionally, these were regulated monopolies with prices fixed by the government. But Charles Kettering, developer of the electric starter for automobiles, sensed an opportunity.
After selling his company, Delco, to General Motors, Kettering introduced the Delco-Light Farm Electric Plant in 1916. The small gas-powered engine coupled to a 32v DC generator and a set of batteries came with an entire line of optional peripherals: lights, appliances, well pumps, and electric motors. It was an instant hit. By 1936, nearly 150 companies were selling farm electric plants and more than 600,000 rural homes and businesses were generating their own power.
Meanwhile, according to Craig Toepfer’s just-released The Hybrid Electric Home (Schiffer, 2010), a bunch of radio enthusiasts in Ohio were giving birth to the renewable-energy industry.Fine Homebuilding, a respected journal of the building trades, reports that the first wind generators were made by Great Plains farmers whose living-room radios were hooked up to car batteries that they got tired of lugging into town to be recharged so the farmers could listen to “the Clicquot Club Eskimos, the Ipana Troubadours, or WLS’s National Barn Dance.” So they mounted homemade propellers onto car generators, stuck them on a pole, and wired them to their radio batteries.
Other entrepreneurs sensed more opportunities. In 1930, the Jacobs Wind Electric Company opened its first factory in Minneapolis. Eventually, more than 20 companies were making wind generators. Ever frugal farmers, faced with scarcer funds, soon hooked up the wind generators to their oil-based farm electric plants to save fuel, creating the first hybrid generators.
But then Congress passed the first Rural Electrification Act in 1936, effectively killing the nascent off-the-grid power generating industry. As Toepfer argues, “In a monumental act of irrationality, justifiable only by a lack of knowledge or understanding, the federal government decided to do what no investor-owned utility would even begin to consider doing, extending the central station wires from the major urban centers to every rural and remote part of the nation.”
According to the stipulations of the Rural Electrification Administration, hookups performed under its aegis required the removal or destruction of wind and oil-based farm electric systems. The rationale for this misguided policy was that the only way to increase profitability for regulated monopolies with government-fixed prices was to increase demand, and this was most expedient method of reducing REA subsidies to electric utilities.
The REA doubtless improved the lives of millions of Americans. But Toepfer argues that for the $210 million that the government spent under the REA act, it could have provided every electricity-deprived homestead with a farm electric plant and a wind generator, and still not have spent all its money. Although there is no question that the REA supplied a much greater amount of power than the basic, self-reliant technology that was just getting off the ground, Fine Homebuilding opines that “we put all our eggs in one energy basket, committing the country to an inefficient electric grid, sanctioning tremendous environmental damage in the process, and squelching what could have been an enormous start for alternative energy."
Instead, 90 years later, the federal government’s industrial and energy policies see fit to reverse course and channel taxpayer funds into the same industries that it once saw fit to destroy. Go figure.