For most of the twentieth century, electricity was widely assumed by economics textbooks to be a commodity that could not be traded competitively. Not allowing storage or alternative methods of transportation, electricity threw off the basic assumptions of political economy. Yet competitive exchanges have come online in the present century; in addition, smart-grid projects are introducing increasingly numerous market-like patterns into the electric grid's operations. What happened? I argue that several groups steeped in particular work cultures—from engineers to data workers to psychologists to consumer critics—bring electricity's economy to life today. Their economic imaginations come to being in the thick of technological activity and interactions with infrastructures like the electric grid—a phenomenon I theorize as "techno-economics."
Relying on oral history interviews, this chapter narrates the beginning of deregulation and market making in electricity. For markets to trade electricity competitively and safely, engineer-economist teams invented regulation in the 1980s, which fused electricity's physics with textbook economics. This process was described to me as the "gluing of economics and engineering." Regulatory work, which I take to be rulemaking for economic activity, happens in such technological sites informed by disciplinary commitments and the material exigencies of specific technologies like electricity. We need to look beyond the ideological ambition of policymaking circles and into such techno-economic activity to understand how previously uncompetitive domains of economic activity are turned into marketplaces.
This chapter looks at the data-laden work culture of electricity trade. I report from a market intelligence firm that sells trading advice in electricity and a market training session provided by one of the Independent System Operators. To predict future prices and attain competitive edge in markets, electricity market participants engage in an endless endeavor to represent the electric grid in data form. I argue that the data-centered culture of trading expands the purview of electricity markets; it enables the connection of far-flung actors, allows the influx of data workers into electricity's trade, and ultimately helps expand the footprint of these markets as more and more participants plug in for a larger market share.
This chapter reports from a smart-grid laboratory, where the work culture puts a premium on finding new, better algorithmic ways to balance the supply and demand of electricity. Equipped with the mathematical optimization toolkit, smart-grid engineers strive to move beyond existing markets and turn the electric grid itself into a communication network that fulfills market transactions in the background of everyday grid operations. The optimization work culture also draws on psychology and behavior research geared toward enrolling everyday consumers into the fold of the grid market. The smart grid is an example of what I term "everyday optimizing markets," which proliferate around us today across diverse fields, from transportation to crowd-working arrangements.
This chapter reports on two groups of citizen activists discontented with electricity markets' operations—specifically the transmission line construction projects encouraged by these markets, which make long-distance trade possible. When Independent System Operators approve a transmission expansion project for reliability purposes, the project acquires the right to eminent domain, and its costs are socialized across the consumer base. Steeped in their own cultures of householding, landowning, and farming, citizen groups have formulated a counter-economics in the face of electricity markets and a sense of sacred private property as the essence of citizenship. Citizens' economic aspirations, imaginations, and critiques also emerge in the techno-economic field, as a function of their specific experiences with the electric grid.
The epilogue dwells on the concept of techno-economics that this book develops in its chapters—the field where economic imaginations come to being as a function of technological encounters with materials. Returning briefly to the market training session from the introduction, I reflect on how change can occur in the techno-economic field—where and how people's economic imaginations can see questioning and transformation.