Fertile Ground for Utility Investigations Using Sources, Databases and Foi Laws

Article excerpt

In July 2001, just a month after I was hired by Newsday and assigned to the utilities beat, the Long Island Power Authority, or LIPA, announced that it had to build new power plants across the island because increasing demand by residents and businesses would soon surpass the available supply.

Talking to experts about the issue, I learned that utilities in the Northeast typically have plenty of kilowatts to go around on all but the hottest days of the year when air conditioners cause huge spikes in demand. I was curious about changes in demand on LIPA's system over time, so I asked the utility for three years' worth of hourly readings in electronic format.

The chief spokesman looked at me like I was from Mars (the authority had never been asked for electronic data before), but he ultimately gave me a disk with 26,000 records in fixed-width ASCII format along with an utterly pointless 500-page printout of the same data.

My resulting story documented that demand on LIPA's system, which then had a maximum capacity of 4,600 megawatts, had exceeded 4,000 megawatts during just 16 hours in the previous year. The data allowed me to explain to readers that new power plants, always unpopular with residents, wouldn't be needed if the utility and its customers could find ways to cut electric usage during those few peak hours.

Looking at trends

Over the ensuing years on the beat, I would turn to databases and public documents from countless sources to fact-check industry officials and investigate a wide range of issues, from fuel costs and pollution to utility salaries and the impact of deregulation on the energy industry.

In fact, few beats have more data and public documents readily available to the reporter who knows where to find them and - this is the hard part - how to decipher the incredibly arcane terminology of the industry.

Untangling the inner workings of electric utilities got that much harder after the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) prodded many states to deregulate their utilities. Deregulation involved breaking up the electric monopolies that historically owned every piece of the systems - the power plants, the high-voltage transmission lines that moved the juice over long distances and the low-voltage distribution circuits that feed kilowatts to users.

In states where deregulation was enacted, including New York, utilities were typically forced to sell their power plants to independent firms and open their wires to competitors who would purchase bulk power on newly established exchanges and try to sell it to utilities' customers. Proponents of deregulation said the newly competitive landscape would lead to efficiencies and lower rates that the stodgy monopolies of yesterday could never match. But as New York Times reporter David Cay Johnston noted in a recent series of articles, that promise has not been realized.

"A decade after competition was introduced in their industries, long-distance phone rates had fallen by half, air fares by more than a fourth and trucking rates by a fourth," Johnston wrote in October. "But, a decade after the federal government opened the business of generating electricity to competition, the market has produced no such decline."

This is fertile ground for utility beat writers, and all the information they need to piece together what has happened in their states is readily available.

The first stop should be the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration, which maintains dozens of databases with thousands of measurements of every facet of the electric industry. For example, the annual database created from form EIA-826 contains monthly sales figures for most utilities in the nation. As of this writing, it is available from 1990 through July 2006 in dBASE format, which is easily imported into Access or Excel.

Using that data, a reporter could quickly piece together the cost-perkilowatt trend for his local utility over a decade and also compare it to other trends for other utilities. …