Energy: The U.S. in Crisis?

Energy: The U.S. in Crisis? Photo credit: Clipart.com


To research and assess past, present, and future decisions related to energy shortages.


This is a single lesson in which students study and assess energy shortages, using the California energy crisis (2000-2001) as a case study.

In this lesson students will evaluate economic, political, and social impacts that led California to its near critical energy situation. By doing so, students will gain an understanding of the different trade-offs that are made at many levels, from personal to national, as people grapple with tough issues. This lesson focuses on how decisions are made on many levels and how those decisions involve trade-offs of economic costs and social values.

While students perform these analyses, they have to keep in perspective other unspoken factors that are impacting the situation: the world's high reliance on fossil fuels; limited resources; relatively modest funding for research into alternative fuels and energy efficiency; current legislation in the United States that prohibits oil exploration in sensitive ecosystems; and our nation's reliance on foreign nations for our fossil fuel needs.

It is important to note some common misconceptions present in middle- and high-school students. The idea of energy conservation seems counter-intuitive to middle- and high-school students. Some students interpret the idea that "energy is not created or destroyed" to mean that energy is stored up in the system and can even be released again in its original form. (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, p. 338.)

Planning Ahead

This lesson contains articles on the California energy crisis (most written in 2000-2001). You should supplement this lesson with current news articles. You may want to print the articles used in this lesson ahead of time.


Distribute the article, The California Crisis: Summary, from the PBS Frontline site, Blackout. Students should read the article.

Ask students: "Is there a single factor or are there multiple factors that impacted the situation?" Allow students several minutes to discuss this topic.

Say to students: "Today we will look at California and its current energy problems. We will analyze and assess the factors that impacted the situation. We will also try to construct understanding as to what needs to be determined before we make decisions regarding energy use and legislation."


Refer students to the PBS Frontline article once again.

Ask questions such as:

  • What are the major factors that caused the crisis?
  • What are the social impacts of these decisions?
  • What are the possible economic impacts?
  • How does politics impact this situation?
  • What were the decisions made that helped create this situation?
  • What steps can California take to remedy this crisis?
  • Do you know of any energy-efficient technologies that can be used to conserve electricity?

Have students go to the Reason Public Policy Institute site. Students should read these articles:

Revisit the initial questions with students and then ask them:

  • Has anyone's answer changed?
  • Were there different perspectives presented in these articles? What were they?
  • According to the author of the State Meddling, Not Deregulation, Behind Electricity Crunch article, how can deregulation actually spur investments in energy-efficient technology and other options for consumers?
  • Is energy production a single-issue problem or a multi-issue problem? What led you to that conclusion?

Have students visit UC Santa Cruz's site and read General Background: UC Santa Cruz and the Energy Crisis. Students should follow this article by going to The California Crisis, part of the Blackout site presented by Frontline.

Have students discuss these questions, to make sure each student has a clear understanding of the big picture, past, present, and future:

  • What led to the crisis? What decisions led to the crisis and who made them?
  • What was the impact of those decisions?
  • What decisions need to be made to alleviate the crisis?
  • What might happen as a result of those decisions? Describe some possible scenarios.

Tell students that they will develop their own news articles that discuss decisions that need to be made regarding the California energy crisis. Have students work in groups of four. Assign students one of the categories of past, present, or future. The students working in the past should write as though they are in the 1970's; present should be now; and the future should be set 20-30 years into the future (the students who are writing in the future have multiple options for their articles, but make sure they ground their stories in the facts of the previously read news articles). They should spend the remaining time in class working on a rough outline of their concepts.

They should include these points that specifically focus on their area:

  • What are the major factors that caused the crisis?
  • Is there a single cause or are there multiple causes?
  • What were the political, social, and economic factors that caused this crisis?
  • Were there alternatives that could have been pursued to avoid this crisis (i.e., full deregulation, more energy conservation, use of energy-efficient technologies)?
  • What were the impacts of this crisis?
  • Could this situation potentially have been avoided?
  • What steps have been taken to avoid repeats of this situation?
  • What are the potential decisions that need be made now? What other decisions or choices might those lead to in the future?
  • Are there plans in place to avoid future problems?
  • Is there potential for future energy problems for California?

An optional resource students could use is The Energy Story, which provides a general overview of energy and its sources.

Have students complete and present the articles. Allow each of the groups a five- to ten-minute presentation.


Each student should write a one-page response to this scenario:

You are on a committee that will evaluate the potential of deregulating your community's energy systems. Your job is to make recommendations based on the lessons learned in California. You need to present and justify your recommendation in a clear manner that is easy to understand. Cite reasons and examples in your recommendation. Include recommendations that involve decisions at levels ranging from personal to governmental. Discuss any possible trade-offs.

Have several students give an overview of their responses. Make sure to allow students the opportunity to counter differing points of view.


Have students find out if local energy is regulated or deregulated. Have them research why the choices were made. Make sure that they investigate the political, social, and economic factors that impacted the decisions.

Have students perform a Web search to determine if there are other areas that have a successfully deregulated energy system. Have the students present and discuss their findings.

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Project 2061 Benchmarks State Standards