Public power women of the West

I have been on the road in the West much of the last two weeks. I was asked to keynote two conferences focusing on women in our industry that were held almost back-to-back: the Western Energy Institute’s Women in Energy Symposium, held in San Diego November 1-3, and the Northwest Public Power Association’s Women in Public Power conference, held in Portland November 8-9. I spent a lot of time in the air making that happen, but it was well worth it.

I started working in the energy industry as an attorney specializing in energy regulation back in 1980. Back then, the industry was very male dominated — there were few minorities or women in positions of power and responsibility. That is changing now. Just among energy trade association CEOs in DC, we have Dena Wiggins at the Natural Gas Supply Association, Julia Hamm at the Smart Electric Power Alliance, Abby Hopper at the Solar Energy Industries Association, and me. Pat Vincent-Collawn, CEO of PNM Resources in New Mexico, is currently serving as the first woman board chair of the Edison Electric Institute. (OK, I can’t help but note that our Association has had four female board chairs since I came here in 2004 — Jan Schori of SMUD, Maude Grantham-Richards of Farmington, NM, Phyllis Currie of Pasadena, CA, and Paula DiFonzo of New Braunfels, TX — Powerful Public Power Women all!).

And we are seeing more women CEOs in public power — right now the two largest public power utilities in Texas are headed by women: Jackie Sargent at Austin Energy and Paula Gold-Williams at CPS Energy in San Antonio. 

But let’s not fool ourselves — we have lots of work left to do. That is true not only at the CEO level, but at the senior team level and throughout our organizations.  We need to develop, retain and promote diverse public power utility workforces — and I mean diverse in every sense, including not only women and other under-represented groups, but different generations and skill sets. And that is where meetings like the two I just attended come in.  

Carol Butler, Director of Corporate Performance at Seattle City Light and Chair of the Association’s B&F Section, and Kristen Taylor of WEI asked me to speak at the WEI meeting.  About 150 women from across the West attended. WEI draws from IOU and public power, natural gas and electric, and Canadian and US utilities, as well as vendors and suppliers, so it was a diverse group in terms of employers.  And we had engineers and lawyers, customer service and power/gas supply personnel, and everyone in between. I talked in my keynote about the major technological changes already happening in the electric utility industry, the resulting need to up our game to better serve our retail customers, and the career opportunities all this presents for able and motivated women in our industry. I closed with the six pieces of career advice for women in energy that I had shared during my WCEE acceptance speech last March.

I was gratified that so many women there related to one or more of the six pieces.  Quite a few came up to me during the day to tell me that they were now dealing with many of the same issues I had wrestled with (balancing work and parenthood, deciding on the best career path forward, etc.), and they appreciated hearing my perspective. 

I spent the day at the conference, and learned as much as I taught during the other panels and presentations. Among other things, I learned I am the very model of a Baby Boomer — loyal to the organization, thinks everyone should “pay their dues,” etc. Listening to the Gen X’ers and Millennials at the meeting again brought home to me that not all of us have the same motivations or viewpoints.      

As a bonus, I took a road trip on November 3 up the coast to Anaheim Public Utilities with Janet Lonneker, Assistant General Manager of Electric Services, and Lisa Nugent, Customer Service Manager. We had a great time dishing as we drove up I-5, going by the now-closed San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station on the way.

Janet and her staff took us on a tour of the Anaheim Substation in downtown, a very stylish brick structure with architectural details taken from Anaheim’s old Light and Water Works building, an electric generation plant built in the early 1900s. It really blends into the area seamlessly.

Anaheim Substation

We also went by the Edwards Utility Center and met some of the field personnel.  It certainly fit in with the theme of my trip that the facility was named after none other than Marcie Edwards, former General Manager of both Anaheim Public Utilities and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (yet another powerful and no-nonsense public power woman!)

After the tour, I had lunch at Anaheim’s headquarters with about 75 utility staff and senior management from Anaheim and the Southern California Public Power Authority (known to all as SCPPA), including SCPPA’s new Executive Director, Mike Webster. Dukku Lee, Anaheim’s GM, and I did an interview during lunch using an “Inside the Actor’s Studio” format — he even had James Lipton-style index cards! 


We finished up with a tour of the Anaheim control center — I must say that the very substantial redundancies built into the feeders for quick power restoration are very impressive. Dukku and his staff have much to be proud of. Anaheim Public Utilities exemplifies public power at its best — active and engaged employees, facilities that reflect the values (and architecture!) of the community, and strong customer service (imagine having Mickey Mouse as a customer!).

After going home for the weekend to repack, I traveled back out to Portland, Oregon for the NWPPA conference. Anita Decker, NWPPA’s Executive Director, and Elaine Dixon, NWPPA’s Director of Education and Workforce Development, put on a great meeting, with a variety of small group exercises that got women who did not know each other talking frankly about their careers, families, and everything in between. They also had a great lineup of speakers, including Beth Looney, CEO of PNGC Power, Meera Kohler, CEO of Alaska Village Electric Cooperative, Amber Orr, Director of Engineering at Pend Oreille County PUD, Britni Davidson-Cruickshank, Member Services Manager at Salem Electric, and Janet Herrin, COO at BPA.  Each of them had something unique to contribute, based on their past experiences. It was just plain fun to listen to them react to each other and to the very good questions from the audience.

Anita took off on one of the six pieces of career advice I had given to WCEE — to assemble a “kitchen cabinet” of informal advisors who can help you when you have to make important career (and life) decisions. She talked about how to find such advisors, and how to use different advisors for different purposes. She challenged the women in attendance to be “Cabinet makers,” and develop their own group of advisors. I really enjoyed seeing how the attendees responded to her presentation. I know my own kitchen cabinet has been a huge help to me, starting with its Prime Minister, my husband Iles. Nothing like your own spouse to administer some tough love to you when your thinking is less than crystal clear!

I got back to DC from Portland very tired, but also heartened. We have many smart, able, and dedicated women coming up in public power who I think will be able to help us do great things — figure out new ways to serve our customers, improve our power supply and demand side resources, strengthen our transmission and distribution facilities, and respond to the needs and values of our communities. I look forward to seeing them make their way up in their utilities — all the way to the top, if that is what they decide they want.