RTO Insider wants to become the WSJ of the electric industry
Richard Heidorn Jr. is the editor and c0-publisher of RTO Insider, which covers the electric industry.
Heidorn is a former reporter and editor for The Philadelphia Inquirer, where he began covering the electric industry as Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware introduced competition in the late 1990s. His coverage won the National Press Foundation’s 1998 award for energy reporting.
He later headed a Houston-based startup that produced hourly power indexes and worked as an energy analyst for Bloomberg Government.
In between, he worked for eight years in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s Office of Enforcement, where he became a whistleblower — proving he was not cut out for government work.
He holds a journalism degree from Penn State University and an MBA from Temple University.
Heidorn spoke by email with Talking Biz News about RTO Insider and its coverage. What follows is an edited transcript.
How did the idea for RTO Insider come about?
The idea for RTO Insider came one day in about 2009 when I walked into a hotel conference room in Wilmington, Delaware, to observe a meeting of the PJM Interconnection, a federally-authorized Regional Transmission Organization (hence “RTO”) while conducting an audit of the RTO as a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) Office of Enforcement.
I had started covering the electric industry for The Philadelphia Inquirer in the late 1990s as the retail side of the industry was beginning to go through an upheaval: the move by many states to eliminate utilities’ traditional monopolies over the generation and delivery of power. This allowed consumers to select their power provider based on price or source (e.g., 100 percent renewable power).
FERC created RTOs to facilitate competition in the wholesale side of the industry. There are seven such organizations in the U.S., serving about two-thirds of the nation’s electric load. (See map.)
RTOs are like air traffic controllers for the electric grid, responsible for keeping electric supply and demand in balance in real time by telling generators how much to produce and when. They are also like the New York Stock Exchange, managing long-term, next-day and real-time power markets. Finally, they manage a quasi-legislative process in which stakeholders — including wind, solar, nuclear, coal and gas generators; transmission providers; state regulators and consumer advocates — debate and vote to approve new rules for the markets and grid operations, subject to FERC approval.
The conference room looked a bit like the United Nations, with dozens of stakeholders and PJM staff at tables with microphones. Although several trade publications covered RTO proposals once they were filed with FERC, I recognized that no one was covering the stakeholder proceedings where the issues were debated — and when those who care about such matters can have the most influence.
Although the seed of the business was planted in 2009, I wouldn’t act on it until January 2013 when I was laid off from a Bloomberg startup I joined after leaving FERC in late 2010.
Then age 57, I knew it would be very difficult for me to get another job, particularly given the implosion of the newspaper industry. I figured if I could get a hundred or so subscribers paying $1,000/year, I could scrape out a living providing coverage of PJM.
Why is the electric power industry so important to cover?
Every other business in the U.S. depends on the electric industry. Power is one of the biggest expenses for many manufacturing companies. Thus, it’s a ripe industry for trade media.
Why have traditional business media not spent as much time covering it?
Other business media do cover the industry, but we go further into the weeds. When we cover a FERC meeting or a Congressional hearing in D.C., for example, we will see competitors from Politico, Argus, S&P Global (formerly Platts), Energy & Environment News and others. But we are the only publication that sends reporters inside the RTO meetings and that provides detailed coverage of RTO activities.
How has RTO Insider been funded?
We’ve been self-funded. The first year, I and my business partner (and wife) used some credit card debt to cover our expenses. We began hiring other reporters and expanding beyond PJM to the other regions as our revenues increased. Last year, we took on some debt to hire additional staff.
How big is your staff, and how much content does it produce each week?
We have 11 full-time staffers (including me and my wife) and three part-timers. We file stories daily to our website and then combine the week’s news (typically 20 to 35 stories) in a PDF newsletter that usually runs from 30-44 pages.
In what areas — geographic or content-wise — would you like to expand coverage?
We are open to expansion wherever there are organized markets and are currently considering Canada and Mexico.
Who are the readers?
Our readers include energy lawyers, lobbyists, trade organizations, consumer advocates, state and federal regulators, generators, transmission operators, consultants and large power buyers (e.g. Walmart).
How are you generating revenue, and are there other ways that you’re exploring?
We generate 99.99% of our revenue from subscriptions and plan to stay that way. We have only occasionally run paid ads, although we run many ads for industry conferences in our role as a media sponsor.
Where do you see RTO Insider in five years?
Our goal is to be recognized as The Wall Street Journal of the electric industry while increasing our sales penetration among current subscribers and finding new ones.