This utility CEO's powerful vision reimagines solar
The following Q&A is an edited excerpt from the Bard MBA’s Dec. 15 Sustainable Business Fridays podcast. Sustainable Business Fridays brings together students and faculty in Bard’s MBA in Sustainability program with leaders in business, sustainability and social entrepreneurship.
Vermont’s Green Mountain Power obsesses on its customers. Under the leadership of CEO Mary Powell, it has radically restructured, positioning itself as an energy transformation company focused on meeting the needs of consumers with integrated, cutting-edge services that help them use less energy and save money.
In the process, the utility has become the first to help its ratepayers go off the grid, the first to offer residential solar customers the Tesla Powerwall battery and the first and only utility to achieve B Corp certification. And consumers have responded. Green Mountain Power has grown from serving 88,000 customers in 2008 to serving over 260,000 today, with revenues of more than $640 million and $2 billion in assets.
Last month, the Bard MBA’s Meghan Altman talked with Powell about the company’s transformative vision and where she sees the future of the energy system.
Powell has served as president and CEO of Green Mountain Power since 2008 and she’s been the backbone of its comprehensive restructuring and service quality improvement. In 2014, Powell was recognized by POWER-GEN as the Woman of the Year. In 2016, Fast Company named her one of the 100 most creative people in business and in 2017 CEO Connection designated her one of the top 25 most influential women of the mid-market.
Meghan Altman: How do you respond to utilities in larger markets that say that what you're doing at Green Mountain Power isn't possible for them?
Mary Powell: My response is that we’re an example that’s absolutely scaleable to any location. Developing a deeply loving connection with those you serve is possible whether you serve thousands or millions. The reality is that, yes, we do create an intimate feel but we don’t personally know everybody.
I grew up in New York City and go back there all the time. There are miles and miles of neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens where it’d be possible to create a more intimate connection and help customers who want to think about energy as a service to decarbonize their homes and have a more economical future. The opportunity is there for those who want to seize it.
The more robust challenge is serving customers in states that don’t want transformation or aren’t hungry for transformation.
Altman: How did Green Mountain Power become a B Corp?
Powell: [Chris Dutton], the former CEO of Green Mountain Power, was the one who got the whole thing started, and he supported me in pursuing B Corp Certification. Whenever we were having a hard time explaining why we were doing it, I’d just say, "We need to become the Ben & Jerry's of the energy world." So there was nothing that could have made me happier than when we had Ben and Jerry standing with us when we did our B Corp announcement. I believe it was Ben who said that we were the first utility in the galaxy to be a B Corp.
It was just common sense to focus on the people and the communities we were serving, and on doing well by doing good. Overall, it happened very organically. By the time we got to the certification part, we were already on the path because we were obsessing on our customers and moving very rapidly to a different future on their behalf. We knew that we’d be OK and that our investors would be OK.
Altman: Do you have other utilities contacting you to learn how they can do what Green Mountain Power is doing?
Powell: We’ve had more companies reaching out and wanting to learn more about what we’re doing. We’re definitely leading the way in the context of how we think of ourselves. We talk about that here: that we’re an energy transformation company focused on personalized energy solutions.
What’s really cool is that when others come to talk about that, we learn about the things that they’re thinking about that we could actually scale faster because we’re smaller. And there’re also always operational things that we learn from others, especially companies that have more invested in core systems or in things that I’d call the meat and potatoes of the business.
Altman: Success for the company means figuring out how to never raise rates. What’s the company’s future in making this a reality?
Powell: It’s tough because for the first time in years we did just have to do a rate increase of 5 percent.
It’s a last resort for us and makes us want to work harder to figure out new ways into value propositions for our customers. There’s no doubt that, in some parts of the country, loads are flat and are threatening to decline because consumers can now self-supply. That’s the future that we’re leaning into. That’s the future we want to see from an energy system perspective, but at the same time, we absolutely do not want a future where we’re saying to those customers who for whatever reason don’t transform that the traditional delivery system is now three times the cost.
That’s the heart and soul of what we’re trying to do. That’s how to lead the transformation so that we’re earning our way into the new value and revenue streams that are coming to offset the loss of the traditional. We have our work cut out for us. But if it were easy, everyone would be doing it.