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California Energy Markets / Bottom Lines

[May 3, 2019 / No. 1537]

Looking Back at 30 Years of California Energy With CEM's First Editor

Thirty years and 1,536 issues ago this week, Bottom Lines ran for the first time in the premier issue of California Energy Markets, marking a span that has seen major changes in the Western energy landscape and at the publication itself, although its basic essence remains the same.

CEM's original editor-in-chief and publisher was Cyrus Noë, who for seven years had published Clearing Up, which remains CEM's sister publication out of NewsData's headquarters in Seattle, which Noë once called home. Born in 1929, he earned B.A. and M.A. degrees at the University of Montana and completed coursework for a doctorate at the University of Washington.

CEM's first editor-in-chief and publisher,
Cyrus Noë (1929-2014).
CEM's first editor-in-chief and publisher, Cyrus Noë (1929-2014).

He started his career in the news business in Montana in 1945, according to his recollections in the first edition of Bottom Lines (see CEM No. 1 [16]). This was followed by working and living as a journalist in New Orleans, the Republic of Panama, San Francisco, Germany, the islands of Polynesia and Micronesia, and Longview, Washington, as well as Seattle. He was a reporter and editor for daily and weekly magazines, radio stations and wire services before retiring in 2014.

Noë passed away in September 2017, leaving an indelible mark on the Western energy publishing sector. His colorful personality is still recalled by longer-serving NewsData staff and is described as "somewhere between curmudgeonly and magisterial" by CEM Production Editor Amber Schwanke, who has been casting a careful eye over CEM's content since 2003.

CEM's first editor, Arthur O'Donnell.
CEM's first editor, Arthur O'Donnell. Courtesy A. O'D.

Today, as a relatively new acquisition of Hillsboro, Oregon-based Ruralite Services, there are many exciting updates in the works for CEM and NewsData. And a slew of recent seismic-level changes—such as an increasingly perilous wildfire threat, Pacific Gas & Electric's second bankruptcy, a massive customer migration from traditional utilities and an ever-changing range of emerging renewables and storage technology—keeps California an interesting place to write about.

CEM No. 1 came in at 30 pages, reflecting an energy scene that in May 1989 was complicated and in flux, as it is today. Among the top news items was a proposed merger of Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric. According to the issue, soon after SDG&E and SCE agreed to merge, San Diego city leaders undertook a movement to municipalize the utility. Local polling showed that residents opposed both the merger and the municipalization.

Other markers of the time:

  • An experimental large energy storage project using huge magnetic coils the size of a football field, known as the Superconductive Magnetic Energy Storage Program, to be located in Washington or New Mexico.
  • California Energy Commission member Robert Mussetter noting that the final draft version of the CEC's Electricity Report 7 is "in the hands of Kodak and Xerox."
  • Problems at nuclear plants, including cracked bolts at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station and "scathing criticism" of Arizona Public Service's management of an atmospheric dump-valve failure at Palo Verde, which caused a delayed restart. APS spokesman Wayne Kaplan's quote doesn't appear to evoke much certainty: "We're confident that we're going to get through, but the next two to three weeks will be telling."
  • A controversial proposed merger of Pacific Power & Light (Pacific Power) and Utah Power & Light (Rocky Mountain Power), requiring regulatory approval in seven states.

CEM's founding editor and associate publisher, Arthur O'Donnell, served in the position for nearly 14 years, going on to a variety of pursuits including working as a program and project supervisor at the California Public Utilities Commission's Safety and Enforcement Division, 2015-2018, as well as many editorial and analyst roles in the energy industry. O'Donnell, now an independent analyst at The Energy Overseer, began covering energy as a radio reporter in the mid-1970s in Seattle and began writing for energy publications in the mid-1980s, and was a contributor to Clearing Up.

The decision was made that California could support its own newsletter, O'Donnell said, with a similar format to Clearing Up and some overlap of content, but with its own focus. CEM's name set it apart at that time, according to O'Donnell, who related how he convinced Noë that the focus should be the development of electricity and natural gas markets. At its launch, the San Francisco-based publication covered many of the same topics as today, including investor-owned and municipal utilities, state and federal energy regulation, power system dynamics, litigation and the California Legislature.

"It was really meant to be an all-in-one compendium for California," O'Donnell, now living in Albuquerque, New Mexico, said in a phone interview. "That was, I think, the basis for its success. All of a sudden, people had one thing that they had to look at each week."

In CEM's early years the industry was changing in ways that it had not in 75 years, O'Donnell said, including introduction of competition in gas and electricity service, which brought many new providers and players onto the scene.

"You had a lot of kind of flimflam artists coming into the marketplace" looking for easy money, he said. This developed into an editorial focus for CEM on the legitimacy of some of the players, some of whom pushed back at the scrutiny.

"A lot of them were pretty bald-faced at what they were doing," he said, mentioning Enron.

O'Donnell described a world in which energy reporting meant tackling boxes of files in lonely rooms and attending many hearings (making CEM's San Francisco base relatively near the California Public Utilities Commission a plus). The print distribution medium of the time left some readers weeks behind because of the nature of print circulation models.

Masthead and Billboard of the first issue of California Energy Markets, May 5, 1989.
Masthead and Billboard of the first issue of California Energy Markets, May 5, 1989.

CEM has always been put out "by a very dedicated group of professionals," O'Donnell said. "That is really important, and it really comes out in the product." He noted that he and Noë were partners but didn't always agree: "We lived up to the best of journalism that we could," he said.

In Bottom Lines No. 1, Noë laid out the guidelines for what the new column would be like. He noted that in his weekly column in Clearing Up he had once featured a recipe for "convertible chili" (vegetarian option), as well as penning a fashion critique of lawyers at the Washington Public Power Supply System default trial in Tucson, Arizona. This is a reminder that it's OK to have fun once in a while in this line of work.

Cyrus' caricature with festive hat

According to Noë, Bottom Lines "adds a personal note to what is otherwise straight (but lively) reporting. It's not realistic to describe the subject matter of the column in advance of its weekly execution." That remains true today, and it's difficult not to be humbled and filled with a sense of responsibility to maintain an energy reporting vision that has withstood the test of time. –Jason Fordney

Bottom Lines is excerpted from NewsData's California Energy Markets publication. If you aren't a current subscriber, see for yourself how NewsData reporters put events in an accurate and meaningful context—request a sample of California Energy Markets.

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