Vermont-based, investor-owned utility Green Mountain Power needed to become more innovative to commit to a clean energy transition. Today, innovation is a key aspect of the company’s purpose, according to CEO Mary Powell.
Powell reflected on her transition to CEO from leading the utility’s human resources department, and the focus placed on internal metrics and customer surveys, during a conversation led by former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy recorded on Wednesday as part of Harvard University’s “What CEOs Say” series.
Powell, who announced in September that she will step down as CEO at the end of the year, said the company had been working on making the economics work for clean energy options for decades by being “customer-obsessed.” GMP knew what the customers wanted, as “we survey them obsessively,” she said. “If you’re obsessed, you’re getting input all the time.”
The key to GMP’s success was knowing what customers ultimately wanted, not to wait for them to become familiar with options and ask for a solution themselves, Powell said. Nobody told them “we’d really like you to come up with a way for us to store energy, help you lower carbon [emissions] and costs during peak season and never have an outage,” she said.
“It was a time back in 2008 where most people had just accepted the sound bite that [energy] was going to be green and high cost or dirty and cheap,” she said. Knowing the customer wanted clean energy if it could be achieved through an affordable way opened up the utility to more opportunities for innovation.
“The minute we heard that Tesla — we caught wind, back-channel — that they were working on this home storage technology, we naturally said we want to be there, we want to be part of it.”
Powell and GMP’s vice president and chief innovation officer, Josh Castonguay, worked closely with Tesla’s head of product, Arch Rao “on designing the Green Mountain Power program that allowed customers to essentially rent the battery, that allowed GMP to then control the battery when they see great peaking events,” Rao told Utility Dive during the Solar Power International conference.
That program has since expanded to allow customers to use other storage devices, besides Tesla’s Powerwall system.
Powell “is one of the most forward-thinking CEOs that I know,” Rao said. “Sure, Green Mountain Power is small in terms of their overall load on the grid in Vermont or in terms of their number of customers, but they are so incredibly dedicated to adopting new technologies, it is very encouraging for us, the technology vendors.”
GMP searched for a way to create a “customer-obsessed, service-oriented, fast, fun and effective” organizational mechanism in which the company could be successful, Powell said.
For Powell, it meant combining her “love of people and high performance,” as “‘love of people’ doesn’t mean that you don’t bring ‘tough love.'” Ultimately, the utility’s customer satisfaction rate rose from 50% to 94%, she said.
As utilities are increasingly focusing on customer engagement and platforms to offer customized products, GMP also concentrated on changes internally.
Powell joined in 1998 as part of the human resources division, while the Vermont utility was facing bankruptcy. “Don’t waste a good crisis, right?” she said during the Harvard series.
Former GMP CEO Chris Dutton, who convinced Powell to come onboard, outlined the transition in an op-ed in 2014, noting the cultural changes as the company came “from the brink of bankruptcy,” as it became a leaner organization.
The corporate suite offices, known as the “glass palace” were stripped to where Powell now works, at a table across from lineworkers. The formal suits were traded in for casual clothing. And, on the theme of being obsessed with data, the employees that remained with GMP got greater visibility into the company.
Powell said weekly Monday morning debriefs with the nearly 500-person company start with a discussion about safety, “big picture things going on” and projects being worked on that week. All employees also discuss operational metrics, which are sent out weekly to all employees.
“I think there’s 78 things we measure every single week,” Powell said. “So everybody sees how the call center did, how production did, all these metrics.”
The utility also publishes a “Carbon Countdown” every two months, to track progress on carbon emissions goals from November 2018 to 2030. The check-in shows the amount of carbon dioxide cut with customers and internal operations, GMP’s 90% carbon-free energy supply and the amount of carbon dioxide cut this year and since the goal was put in place.