Your electricity bill comes. It seems high. You pay it because that’s the way it is. But why – and does it have to be that way?
Those are the questions Los Angeles Times energy reporter Ivan Penn asked himself as he began delving into the complex world of power production and pricing in California. The answers were troubling and surprising.
His reporting disclosed that electricity customers in the state pay nearly 50% more than the national average. The reason: Regulators keep approving new power plants that aren’t needed, adding to a glut of supply even as electricity usage has fallen. Building these plants has increased Californians’ electricity bills by $6.8 billion annually – to the benefit of utility companies.
Their story already is having impact: For the first time, authorities say they are putting on hold plans to build some new power plants because of issues raised by The Times.
The story by Penn, along with data journalists Ryan Menezes and Ben Welsh, took many months to report. The information is buried in dense, jargony documents – and, when asked to explain the data, utility executives and regulators either declined or obfuscated.
To understand the data and to build an engaging narrative that made sense of a dry, complex topic, they pored through hundreds of pages of documents and then ran their findings past independent experts. They told the story of overcapacity by focusing on an efficient power plant that was closing decades earlier than planned because another unneeded plant was built nearby. And they created a simple but compelling interactive graphic that walked readers through the story.
Penn and Welsh followed that initial story with more articles exposing weaknesses in California’s energy policy planning. No single entity is in charge, which has led to a two-track approach that has meant higher costs for electricity users. As one story made clear, the state is producing so much renewable power that it is forced to either dump it or, in extreme cases, pay other states to take it.
Penn’s work also exposed lax oversight of trading in energy markets, which some critics say is another example of how the state’s regulatory bodies have failed California’s electricity consumers. A program that was designed to help keep power plants solvent has cost California ratepayers almost $700 million since 2009 and racked up $1.6 billion in penalties against U.S. traders, banks, utilities, power producers and grid operators since 2005.
The utility industry – one of the nation’s biggest businesses – is often ignored, because it is hard to understand and write about. Penn and his colleagues were able to make it both understandable and engaging, triggering a review of energy policy in California.