Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Energy Crisis 2001

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Energy Crisis 2001

Article excerpt

Now - as in the 1970s - readers fuel the demand for reliable information

When the term "energy crisis" was coined in 1973, members of the media were caught in an unenviable situation: their public, and their editors, were demanding reliable information about energy in general and about the impact of the Arab oil embargo in particular. Few journalists had the requisite background, contacts, or experience to put the energy situation in a useful context for their readers. The result was extensive confusion -- and the spread of partial information at best and erroneous information at worst.

Reporters learned quickly how to separate scare tactics from concrete data about the production, use, regulation, and economics of energy. Many of those same reporters were still on the energy beat six years later when the second energy crisis hit, and the quality of reporting in 1979 was noticeably more informative than it had been in 1973.

Now, as the United States faces yet another energy crisis, a new generation of reporters needs to be brought up to speed quickly on what the energy business is all about, and how they can do their jobs efficiently, effectively, and completely.

Today, reporters are challenged by editors to come up with stories that provide a unique take on the generic concept of the "energy crisis." The rapid escalation of prices for natural gas, oil, and electric power has focused public attention on the nation's energy supplies, their security, and why they cost what they do. The task for reporters is to take the facts surrounding an immediate story, for instance this winter's significant increases in energy costs faced by homeowners, and put them in context with the national and international energy picture. The goal is to inform readerships about how energy gets from its source to the point of use, and what is involved in that process.

This winter, two energy commodities have taken center stage in the public perception: natural gas and electric power. The most common questions among consumers are: "Why is my gas (or power) bill so high?" and "Why has it gone up so much?"

In the case of the recent aberrations that have affected the California electric-power market and, equally important, the public perceptions that have accompanied the price increases there, the easy answer is neither the right one nor the most informative.

Historically, when bad economic news occurs, the public is tempted to shoot the messenger instead of seeking out the real, and often complicated, reasons involved. This syndrome is evident in statements attributed to politicians and consumers in this latest manifestation of the ongoing "energy crisis."

Who deserves blame for the California power crisis? Is it the electric utility industry, or the federal government, or state officials, or the public itself? The flip answer is "Yes." The more comprehensive answer is that there is more than enough "blame" for the current electric- power problems, in California and elsewhere, to go around.

Power generation

A thorough understanding of how electric power is generated and eventually supplied to industries, commercial establishments, and homes requires a basic knowledge of what actually goes into the generation, transmission, and distribution of power, as well as the economics involved in each of those steps.

To begin with, electric utilities typically operate as state-regulated monopolies, under the jurisdiction of regulatory commissions in each state and the District of Columbia. These bodies establish rates for providing electric power or natural gas to consumers at "just and reasonable" levels.

The utilities themselves, in exchange for their exclusive franchises to distribute energy in specific areas, agree to provide that service reliably and in accordance with the rules of state regulatory bodies. These relationships have been in place for much of the past century. …

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