Utilities are an underappreciated source of environmental stories

Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series of tips gleaned from the most recent annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

By Devin Anderson-Torrez

BOISE, Idaho – Utilities are an undercovered beat, yet they represent a source of great stories at the intersection of human, energy and environmental issues.

What they decide – quickly, slowly or not at all – will be a key factor in whether the battle against climate change is a winning one, said Sammy Roth, a reporter at the LA Times, who spoke at the recent annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

The panel on covering utilities was moderated by Floodlight’s Kristi Swartz. Other speakers wereDavid Pomerantz from the Energy and Policy Institute and Abe Scarr from the Illinois Public Interest Research Group.

But utilities are complex, the laws behind them tricky and the conversation around them ever-expanding. Here’s how the panel simplified things for journalists:

Two types of electric companies

There are two types of electric companies: Investor-owned and public power.

Investor-owned companies are the “big dawgs.”They answer to state regulators like the Public Service Commissions, but perhaps more importantly to Wall Street investors. In Michigan, think ITC Holdings.

Public power agencies are typically cooperatives and municipally-owned. In Michigan, think Lansing Board of Water and Light.

Both kinds of companies have two jobs: Provide a critical service and make money. They are businesses.

Newsworthy issues surrounding utilities may lie in these companies taking questionable steps to preserve or increase their profits.

Companies are spending tons of money on building new plants. Some are making the transition to nuclear. A big jump expected to happen within the next 10 years is the transition to microplants, which would be powered by advanced nuclear energy, Swartz said.

But are they really making the transition? Are the promises to transition to net-zero carbon goals a reality?Right now it doesn’t matter. Companies are going to the Public Service Commission saying ‘our plan is to get there by 2050, but we need the money now’, Swartz said They are getting paid on the promise without any consequences for going back on their promise.

Another source of story ideas is clean energy. It is being used as a cover for more profits while allowing excessive amounts of carbon and natural gas (a ‘transitional energy’), Roth said. This is called greenwashing.

A Consumer issue

And it isn’t just the environment that is affected. This is a consumer issue.

Extreme weather like longer heat waves, tornados, hurricanes, droughts and fires are influencing the cost of utility bills, Roth said. In most areas these companies have monopolies over utility services, controlling delivery and distribution. And as utilities are essential, they can decide the price.

For example: Fracking can drive down the price of gas. With the price of gas going down, the bill should hypothetically see an equal decrease. But instead, companies drove up the price of delivery, increasing their profits at the expense of the customer, said Scarr.

If electric bills get out of control, the transition to clean energy could be threatened, human and environmental justice could be jeopardized.

What can journalists do?

Don’t get wrapped up in the narrative, from any side, Roth said. Do your research.

Holding big companies accountable starts with seeing what they are saying and comparing it with what projections they are giving investors. Do they line up?

Get familiar with the state regulatory commission to publicly access documents from these companies. Sometimes these documents are a thousand pages long – hit CTRL F and find the actual investments, Roth said.

Who is getting the benefits? This usually points toward the answers you are looking for. The honesty isn’t in press releases, it’s in between the lines and someone has to find it.

Who are the investors? Where is the money coming from? Are any decisions being powered by political agendas?

More often than not, the answer is yes.

Utilities profit 10% on capital expenditure, so they are happy to spend as much as they can on going towards zero carbon. Follow the Inflation Reduction Act to understand why this is possible and the corruption it can lead to, the panelists said.

Other tips by the panel:

  • Use consumer watchdog sources like RMI, Gridlab and the regulatory assistance project for data, Swartz and Pomerantz said. Listen to the lived experiences of customers and to academic experts.
  • Monitor the transition to complete reliance on the electric grid. It will be responsible for cars, homes and more. Follow the rising conflict between electric and gas, as profit of electric goes up.
  • Non-efficient buildings are exposed to harsher conditions. The demand for repair, air conditioning, air quality, drives up prices. These costs disproportionately affect low-income and minority communities.

Again, this is more than just an environmental issue. It is a human issue, an energy issue, a political issue.

Utilities can sometimes be looked past as they are such an accepted reality for many people – the bill is the bill because they need them. Questioning this reality and the future of it will be integral in the fight against climate change, Pomerantz said.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *