Just when traders were starting to feel comfortable with arcane tech subjects like policy-based routing and VPNs, or Virtual Private Networks, overlaid onto IP networks, the whole technology sector up and crashed. Now a lot of the drama on Wall Street has shifted from tech to energy. And for most of us, that means climbing a whole new learning curve.

Fortunately, plenty of energy-related information sources exist online. That could be because, unlike tech, energy is a mature industry -- about as mature as industries get, in fact. The information sources you'll read about in a moment have been assisting utility companies, energy brokers and commodity traders for years.

The challenge for newcomers is finding out which of the many energy Web sites out there will help you most, and then devising a plan for how to use them. Here are some suggestions. All pertain to bedrock energy industries such as oil, natural gas and electric power, and to trading the stocks of companies involved in those areas. In a future column, we'll look at how to locate and evaluate stocks of alternative-energy companies.

Follow the Leaders

For starters, as with any sector, you'll want to know what companies are the bellwethers, plus how those stocks move and how the sector as a whole moves. That's not as hard as it sounds. You could simply track one or more of the

exchange traded funds (ETFs) that cover energy companies, including

Barclays iShares Dow Jones US Energy Sector Index,

Merrill Lynch Market Oil Service HOLDRS and

Utilities HOLDRS. There's also the so-called

Select Sector SPDR Funds

covering

energy companies and

utilities.

In addition to providing you with some basic information about each of these ETFs, the above links will lead you to lists of the companies that make up each fund's portfolio. You can use this information in a couple of ways. First, you might set up a watch list consisting of just these ETFs. For good measure, you might add the

Philadelphia Stock Exchange's oil service sector index (OSX) and utility sector index (UTY) to that list. Make a habit of reviewing the indices' price changes at the end of the day. If you're a daytrader, however, be forewarned -- some of the ETFs, in particular, are pretty thinly traded. So monitoring this list intraday could get a little tedious.

A better idea might be to choose one or more ETFs or sector indices and then create a watch list of its component companies. (See this recent Tools of the Trade

column on ways to build and use watch lists.) With the stocks now positioned on your radar screen, you can set about researching the fundamentals of each company.

And again, you can now conveniently track their performance, daily or intraday. Over time, you'll likely see patterns that should prove useful for short-term trades. Price changes in one stock, for example, might soon be reflected in the prices of the index's other component stocks. And movements by certain stocks will likely foreshadow movements by the index as a whole.

Use the News

All of these stocks, of course, react to news -- in particular energy news. And plenty of free energy news sites can be found on the Web. One of the best, surprisingly, is at

Yahoo!. The page comes up in a flash, and you get a lengthy, no-frills list of energy-related news stories from a variety of sources.

Platts Global Energy, a company that sells data to energy trading professionals, also publishes the day's top energy stories. And it does a good job at separating them out by industry. You'll likely find more analytical stories on this site as well.

Several online magazines are also worth checking out, including

energysource

World Energy News

,

Energy Central

and

Energy User News

. And if you're looking into a particular topic, such as California utility deregulation, head to

energysearch, a search engine designed specifically for the sector.

Note that the stories you'll read about at these sites are probably delayed. That is to say, they will be old news to subscribers of real-time news services such as

Dow Jones Newswire

, which charges from $29 a month and up.

Commodity Data

Besides breaking news, energy stocks also react to changes in the futures and spot market prices of the underlying commodities -- those being, of course, things like electric power, oil and natural gas.

Bloomberg

publishes some delayed spot market prices. For delayed futures' and options' prices go to the

New York Mercantile Exchange.

The best free site for historical spot market data is operated by the

Energy Information Administration, which is a part of the

Department of Energy

. Spend some time poring over this site. It also contains reams of statistics on things like consumption forecasts and storage capacity. And there are hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of research articles on trends like the outlook for natural gas storage for the coming year -- all really dry stuff, no doubt. But hey, you never know what you might find.

Whither the Weather?

News isn't the only thing that influences energy prices, and hence the prices of energy stocks. Weather also plays a critical role. Hot summers and cold winters increase demand for electricity and heating oil, bumping up prices. So put the

National Weather Service on your list of energy-related bookmarks. And start paying attention to some of the site's localized short-term forecasts.

If the near-term forecast for Southern California is for unusually cool weather, you might bet that this will depress the prices of natural gas in the region, which might translate into a boost in the stock prices for some of the state's beleaguered utilities. The point here is that by reading the official forecasts regularly, you can monitor what effect, if any, they have on stock prices.

If you want to take a longer view, visit the

Climate Prediction Center, also operated by the National Weather Service. Check out whether this winter's predicted to be colder or warmer than normal and place your bets accordingly. True, no one is really able to predict the weather. But you can likely predict the forecasts' effects on stock prices with pretty good accuracy. Along those lines, trading in weather-related derivatives is said to be a $3 billion industry. Utilities, in particular, use weather derivatives to hedge their exposure to weather-related uncertainty. A pamphlet from the

Chicago Mercantile Exchange explains this little-known trading arena.

Heavyweight Platforms

Serious energy traders, whether they're trading futures or energy commodities, hook into paying services that bring them real-time futures or spot market data along with news and up-to-the-instant forecasts. For $7,000 per year, for example, the

American Petroleum Institute will send you real-time releases of statistics on such things as natural gas inventories.

Also, outfits like

Enron,

DTN,

Reuters

, and the aforementioned

Bloomberg

and Platts disseminate energy data using onscreen platforms similar to those daytraders use for stocks. Depending on the kind of data you order, these can cost anywhere from a couple of hundred to a thousand dollars or more per month.

These platforms might be more than you need if your goal is to simply trade energy stocks. Following a single futures contract, for example, overlaid with some good old technical analysis, might give you as good a read on where energy prices are headed -- and hence where energy stocks are headed -- as a hundred real-time news stories or a thousand spot market price fluctuations.

Clarification

In my

column last week on setting up a multiple-monitor trading computer, I mentioned that graphics board manufacturer

Matrox Graphics sells graphics cards supporting dual monitors starting at $500. I was told that the company also makes a card that supports four monitors and a card that supports dual monitors that sells for $135.

Mark Ingebretsen has written for a wide variety of business and financial publications. Currently he holds no positions in the stocks of companies mentioned in this column. While Ingebretsen cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, he welcomes your feedback and invites you to send it to

mingebretsen@yahoo.com.