Clean Energy Conference Interview Series: Mary Powell, CEO, Green Mountain Power

March 18, 2019 |

Mary Powell, CEO of Green Mountain Power (right)—and presenter at the Michigan Clean Energy Conference— has earned international renown as one of the most innovative and dynamic leaders in the electric utility industry. After accepting the electric utility’s leadership role in 2008, she launched an ambitious and revolutionary new vision for the company, one that focused on low carbon energy, distributed infrastructure and community resilience. In 2017, Fast Company named Green Mountain Power one of the top 10 energy companies in the world. The publication also named her one of the 100 most innovative people in business.

We’re honored to have Powell speaking at the 2019 Michigan Clean Energy Conference, May 21–23. We asked Powell to share some thoughts in the meantime.

When you hear the phrase “a new kind of power company” what does that mean to you?

It means change in a complete and absolute sense. We launched Vision 1.0 ten years ago, which some people are just launching now. We asked how can we get to local renewable generation? How can we accelerate local? How can we move to a greener, low-carbon portfolio?

Then a few years ago, it became clear that rural America could move to a distributed energy system that is home- and business-based. So our North Star became how can we upend the system to make power generation inherently community-based. The traditional bulk system would become the backup system. We’d leverage local renewable generation and devices behind the meter. We’d re-look at everything we do. How we invest in the grid. How we invest in the power supply. How we could create a regulatory system to support consumers and accelerate adoption of low carbon, local generation solutions. And, make it all more reliable than what we had.

Can you share a couple of examples of how that has played out?

We built Vermont’s largest wind farm, and we made Rutland, Vermont, the solar capital of New England. We took our portfolio to 60% renewable generation and 90% carbon free. So we have radically transformed the energy supply and we are doing it on the backbone of a greener grid.

Tell us a bit more about the household part of the system.

We were the first utility to pair with Tesla on home energy solutions, like the Powerwall whole house battery. We now have thousands of homes using those. It reduces carbon and reduces costs while improving the resilience of the home. We really encouraged community-based energy actions. We just announced last week a market incentive for customers moving to storage behind the meter.

So you are moving to the shared energy economy people are talking about.

Yes, moving to a shared energy economy. It’s the same notion as local food. You make the community stronger if you keep it local.

When you talk with other power company CEOs, how does that typically go? Are they curious and supportive of your innovation? Skeptical?

Well, that has evolved …10 years ago I was the skunk at the garden party … I’d be marginalized or dismissed. I’m a New Yorker. I was born in Manhattan. So I get the views people have of rural America. Like, “Isn’t that cute,” or “Well, that is Vermont.” But that has really changed. The planet is on fire. If we don’t change in 12 years…there will be catastrophe. So, yes, there is a change going on. There’s more national interest in changing, versus making excuses for why we can’t change, which our industry is particularly good at.

Patti Poppe, CEO of Consumers Energy.
She led one of America’s largest utilities to commit to a zero-coal future. Read.

Have you perceived any change in the sense of urgency following the IPCC report that lays out that 12-year timeframe for an energy transformation?

I see a greater sense of urgency among those wanting to see how it will be achieved. I see more activist investors. I see more approaches looking at sustainability. And I see businesses—the customers of utilities—demanding change. They will be a huge driver in this, socially responsible businesses.

But no, the IPCC report didn’t change the conversation at investor-owned utilities around the country. Some teams are aleady moving in that direction. Some are inspired to move faster. Utilities are no different from any entrenched human beings. People resist change for as long as they possibly can. We’ve seen it in every field.

Green Mountain Power is a B corp, so social responsibility is central to your business. Are you an outlier on that in the utility world?

We are the only B corp utility in the world. Being a B corp means changing your corporate bylaws to reflect those social responsibility values. So everything we do is about serving customers and communities and the triple bottom line, and doing so in disciplined ways. There are multiple benefits: it grows the economy, benefits the community. That’s why we made Rutland the solar capital of New England.

As a sector, the utility industry does well on community investments … blood drives, community events, making donations. But as a B corp, you look at your core business delivering community benefits, and that’s what makes us an outlier. But it’s easy for others to make this transition, to take this mindset of community investing that already exists and transfer it to the core business.

OK, we are going to ask you to crystal-ball this for us. What do you see America’s energy infrastructure looking like in 2050?

By 2050 we will have either a radically different system, or we will see infrastructure wiped out all across the country. The fix is in on climate change: it is happening. And the infrastructure we have now is not built to withstand that type of dramatic change in climate. We will see things built and rebuilt by then. If we are successful in a transition to power that does not contribute to global warming, we will see massive renewables powering cities across the United States. And in rural areas we will see a move away from bulk delivery systems. You know, bulk is not all that efficient. It’s only 41% efficient. Hopefully we will have moved dramatically away from that model to a distributed, more efficient and resilient system.


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