Powering Strong Communities

APPA’s Ditto, AMP’s Thompson detail pandemic response, commitment to diversity

Joy Ditto, President and CEO of the American Public Power Association, and Jolene Thompson, President and CEO of American Municipal Power (AMP), on July 20 detailed how the public power community has successfully risen to the occasion in meeting the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In comments made during Gas Committee-sponsored session at the National Association of Regulatory Commissioners’ Summer Policy Summit, “Leadership in Turbulent Times: Important Voices in the Energy Industry,” Ditto and Thompson also detailed how the public power sector is proactively taking steps to promote diversity and inclusion.

Ditto and Thompson both took the reins of their respective organizations as the pandemic spread across the U.S., so they were able to provide valuable lessons learned on how to successfully navigate unforeseen challenges in a new leadership role.

Ditto took over as President and CEO of APPA in January, while Thompson took the reins of AMP as its President and CEO in early April. In June, Thompson became the Chair of the APPA Board of Directors. 

Other panelists were:

  • Orlando Alvarez, President and CEO, BP Energy Company
  • Karen Harbert, President and CEO, American Gas Association
  • Diane Leopold, Executive Vice President and Co-Chief Operating Officer, Dominion Energy
  • Dena Wiggins, President and CEO, Natural Gas Supply Association

The panel’s moderator was Diane Burman, a commissioner with the New York Public Service Commission and NARUC Committee on Gas Chairman.

Ditto knew from her prior experience working at APPA that the utility sector and public power in particular had pandemic plans in place.

Prior to being named president and CEO of APPA, Ditto was the president and CEO of the Utilities Technology Council, a global trade association representing electric, gas, and water utilities on their mission-critical information and communications technologies.

Before joining UTC, Ditto was with APPA for 15 years, rounding out her tenure as the senior vice president for legislative and political affairs.

Ditto knew that APPA members could manage the pandemic “if they got the tools that they needed from the federal government, from each other,” and from their states, when needed.

In response to the pandemic, APPA quickly moved to take actions that would allow members to help each other, such as hosting webinars and holding weekly conference calls.

“We were engaged with the rest of the utility sector very heavily – and with the gas sector,” in CEO-level calls with federal government partners, Ditto noted.

APPA had already established strong relationships with its federal government partners and the industry, “particularly around issues like cyber security, so we were able to really just jump into those areas quickly and that helped our members respond and keep the lights on.”

Meanwhile, as the pandemic emerged in the spring, public power utilities were able to successfully juggle the threat posed by COVID-19 with the demands of restoring power in response to storms through mutual aid activities, Ditto pointed out.

There were no COVID outbreaks following the mutual aid events, so public power utilities were able to successfully manage the risk presented by the pandemic and focus on the safety elements, while at the same time restoring power in an efficient manner.

“We really helped our members face these challenges through our federal government relationships, getting PPEs and testing where they were needed,” Ditto said.

With respect to diversity and inclusion, Ditto noted that APPA has “focused on this issue for a number of years.”

In June, Ditto issued a statement on diversity and inclusion. “As Americans, we all have the right to justice and equal opportunity. Unfortunately, that is not the reality for everyone,” she said in the statement. “We still have a long way to go, and it starts with a commitment from each and every one of us to make positive changes in our lives.”

The killing of George Floyd highlighted for Ditto that “we still have work to do within APPA’s staff, as well as educating our members,” she said during the NARUC session.

APPA is working on this effort in three ways. First, there are voluntary conversations underway at APPA and the creation of a repository of relevant books, podcasts and movies “that are helpful in this regard.”

There will also be a continuation of mandatory training at APPA, she noted.

For its members, APPA will continue to provide opportunities for them to educate themselves around these issues by providing webinars, for example.

Ditto also highlighted a unique mutual aid initiative by the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA), an APPA member, and APPA to provide electricity to thousands of Navajo homes.

Citing growing uncertainty tied to the COVID-19 pandemic, NTUA earlier this year said it was postponing the Light Up Navajo II project.

Ditto said she is looking forward to seeing work resume on this important project because “that community is often underrepresented when we hear about diversity and inclusion.”

For her part, Thompson said that the “effectiveness of joint action has been emphasized by the pandemic.”

AMP, which is a joint action organization, is the nonprofit wholesale power supplier and services provider for 135 members in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, Indiana, Maryland and Delaware.

“By having the opportunity to work through APPA or to work through an organization like ours, individual public power systems have the opportunity to share information and best practices about how to keep their employees safe and help their customers,” Thompson said.

AMP’s Board of Trustees announced in February that Thompson would take over as AMP’s new President and CEO. Thompson assumed her new role at AMP on April 1, taking the reins from longtime President and CEO Marc Gerken.

“I never imagined I would take over in the midst of a pandemic or that my first day would be a few weeks after we closed our offices,” Thompson said.

She said that the service aspect of public power has been on full display during the pandemic. “Our crews have worked very hard to ensure reliability,” Thompson noted.

“Our communities have also worked very hard to pay it forward and find ways to support their customers in need. They’ve come up with creative payment plans” and have worked with local social service agencies to try to help customers.

“None of us know what the new normal will look like, but as leaders we have a range of decisions to navigate in the coming year, not the least of which is the workplace dynamic of the future,” the AMP President and CEO said.

“Imagine having taken over your position virtually, in an organization where everything had been in person before. I’ve had to find ways to engage our workforce remotely. I host virtual coffee breaks with our staff. Up to six staff sign up for a Teams meeting for thirty minutes a few times a month and we talk about what they’re working on,” Thompson said. In addition, AMP holds virtual all-staff town halls.

In addition, AMP’s board has shifted to virtual meetings and AMP is preparing to hold its annual meeting through a virtual platform “and we’re doing virtual strategic planning,” she said.

With respect to diversity, Thompson noted that she is the first female CEO at AMP and the sixth woman to chair the APPA board.

Thompson was installed as chair of the APPA Board of Directors during APPA’s Public Power Connect: Virtual Summit & Business Meeting on June 9.

“In the thirty years I’ve been in the industry, I’ve seen our industry come a long way. But we all have room to improve to ensure more inclusion and I know that Joy indicated that’s one of her goals and that’s certainly one of the board’s goals for Joy” -- to make sure that “we’re focusing as much as we can in encouraging that within our membership and at the Association.”