Why There’s So Much Investigative Journalism About Utility Companies
Power and water touch the lives of everyone. Someone has to hold the companies that deliver them to account.
I have a confession to make. I love stories about utility companies. Always have. Always will.
There are several reasons. First, and perhaps foremost, they check the most important box for being the focus of investigative reporting: The services they deliver – electricity and water – touch the lives of nearly everyone. And, they are almost always monopolies. When the grid fails in Texas, or the water system becomes toxic in Flint, Michigan, it’s not like customers can take their business elsewhere.
But after decades in journalism, I have to acknowledge a personal motivation: I like to tackle utility stories because of the degree of difficulty. While no investigative story is ever straightforward, cracking the complexities of power grid management, nuclear power plants or utility rate setting brings a special delight. It’s a little bit like gymnastics. Nothing wrong with brilliantly executing an A-rated move (the easiest), but when Simone Biles lands the floor exercise J move she invented, it’s something to savor.
Last fall, we co-published a story with the Richmond Times-Dispatch that exemplifies the challenges and joys of reporting on utility companies. The story, by reporter Patrick Wilson, described in detail how Virginia’s Dominion Energy had managed to shunt a larger share of the costs and risks of a wind turbine farm onto consumers through a well-organized 11-week lobbying blitz of the state legislature. (Dominion defended its role in the process, saying it needed to lock in the costs of the wind project to fulfill customer expectations that it “keep the lights on.”)
As Wilson points out, the utility has a long history of projects of dubious benefit. Right now, each of its customers is paying $4 per month on their bills for the company’s decision to build one of the last coal-fired power plants in America, a $1.8 billion investment that is used only 11% of the time.