A Beginner’s Guide to Reporting on Energy

by December 1, 2016
Here's where to start if you're a reporter new to the energy beat. (Lightbulb images by Unsplash via Pixabay)

Here’s where to start if you’re a reporter new to the energy beat. (Lightbulb images by Unsplash via Pixabay)

It’s easy to take energy for granted. Turn on a switch and the light goes on. Simple enough, right?

But behind the scenes is a complex world dealing with the consequences of new renewable technology, a damaged environment and the loss of traditional well-paying jobs.

More and more outlets are looking for stories about what’s happening to the people and towns after their mines shutter—the effects go beyond jobs to schools, tax revenue and related businesses.

This country is rich in natural gas. Readers are always interested in a piece weighing energy needs and jobs with the health of the environment. Just look at the protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline—that’s an energy story.

Outlets are also looking for stories revealing the other side of the coin. What jobs are renewable energies creating and can they pay as much as fossil fuel jobs? Construction of renewables is booming, largely due to tax benefits and improved technology. The question is, what’s going to happen when tax credits expire? Renewables aren’t new but our modern industry is. How is it innovating and what are its limitations?

Energy affects every person in this country. If you can humanize the story, you will have readers. People may not care how their switches work, but they do care if their lights turn on. Or worse, if they don’t.

While covering this beat, it’s easy to exaggerate the decline of coal, which despite all the reports still provides a third of the nation’s energy, and over-hype renewables, which combined only produce 13 percent of the nation’s energy. Before grabbing your reporter’s notebook, take time to understand the U.S. energy matrix and the role each energy source plays in powering the nation.

Fossil fuels, renewables and nuclear energy

The U.S. matrix is comprised of fossil fuels, renewables and nuclear energy.

In 2015, fossil fuels provided 67 percent of the nation’s power supply, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration. Fossil fuels are oil, coal, natural gas and their byproducts. These resources were created in prehistoric times and don’t replenish quickly.

During that same year, renewable energy covered 13 percent of the nation’s matrix. Unlike fossil fuels, renewable energy comes from resources that naturally replenish over time, such as the sun, wind and water, making them inexhaustible.

Nuclear power provided the remaining 20 percent of energy in 2015. Nuclear is not considered renewable because its primary fuel, uranium, comes from mining ores. It is considered sustainable, though, because based on expected rate of use, its energy source will last for as long as humans need it.

Reliability vs. diversification

The main difference between renewable sources and fossil fuels is reliability. Renewable sources may be inexhaustible but humans can’t control how much energy is produced at a given time. There’s no way to make the wind blow or the sun shine.

This is why renewable advocates push to diversify the grid. If solar isn’t producing enough energy because it’s cloudy out, then wind, hydro or other energy sources can pick up the slack. But it’s difficult to maintain consistent power over the grid when relying on resources outside of human control.

Fossil fuels, on the other hand, are reliable and controllable. If the demand for energy starts to peak, power plants just need to turn a dial to add more natural gas. That’s a lot easier than telling clouds to clear. This is why fossil fuels will likely never go away entirely—they’re the nation’s safety net.

The energy matrix in 2015

Fossil Fuels: 67 percent

  • Coal: 33 percent
  • Natural gas: 33 percent
  • Petroleum: 1 percent
  • Other gasses: <1 percent

Renewable: 13 percent

  • Hydropower: 6 percent
  • Wind: 4.7 percent
  • Biomass (energy from burning organic matter, such as wood and agricultural waste): 1.6 percent
  • Geothermal (natural heat from within the earth): 0.4 percent
  • Solar: 0.6 percent

Nuclear: 20 percent