Business diversity council helps Illinois utilities mobilize transition to clean energy future

Published on October 02, 2023 by Kim Riley

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The Illinois Utilities Business Diversity Council (IUBDC), a first-of-its-kind coalition of Illinois’ leading utilities, is helping to successfully open doors for more diverse participation in the utility supply chain and growing the total spending across the state with minority- and women-owned business enterprises. 

Formed in 2015, IUBDC is a coalition of the state’s leading utilities focused on increasing business for diverse suppliers through collaboration, technical development, and sharing of best practices. As a partnership, IUBDC’s leaders say the council is helping the state’s utilities successfully navigate the transition to clean energy and modernize Illinois’ water, electric, and natural gas infrastructure.

What’s most interesting about IUBDC is the collaboration between the CEOs of the council’s charter members, including Ameren Illinois, Commonwealth Edison (ComEd), Illinois American Water, Nicor Gas, North Shore Gas and Peoples Gas, who are helping to build a pool of qualified suppliers and ensuring that a growing number of these contracts are awarded to minority- women- and veteran-owned businesses.

This year, the IUBDC Board of Directors is led by board chairman Leonard “Lenny” Singh, chairman and president at Ameren Illinois, where he is responsible for energy delivery to more than 1.2 million electric and more than 800,000 natural gas customers in 1,200 communities across 43,700 square miles. Before joining Ameren Illinois, Singh most recently served as senior vice president for New York-based Con Edison for more than 30 years.

The 2023 IUBDC Board of Directors include: 

Gil Quiniones, CEO at ComEd, part of the Chicago-based Exelon Corp., which serves more than four million residential and business electricity customers, or 70 percent of Illinois’ population. Before joining ComEd, Quiniones served more than a decade as president and CEO of the New York Power Authority, the nation’s largest state-owned electric utility. 

Torrence Hinton, president and CEO at Peoples Gas and North Shore Gas, where he manages the daily operations, strategy and administrative activities of the two Illinois utilities, which together provide natural gas service to nearly one million customers in Chicago and 54 communities in its northern suburbs. Hinton formerly was vice president of operations at Peoples Gas.

Wendell Dallas, president and CEO at Nicor Gas, the largest distribution company of Southern Company Gas with 2.2 million customers in over 650 Illinois communities. Prior to this position, Dallas served as vice president of sales and marketing for the Georgia Power Company. 

Rebecca Losli, president at Illinois American Water, the largest investor-owned water utility in Illinois, providing water and/or wastewater services to some 1.3 million people. Losli served as the program manager of program planning for the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District before joining American Water.

David Carter, president of Aqua Illinois Inc., which provides water and wastewater services to roughly 273,000 people in 70 communities across 13 counties. Aqua Illinois is a subsidiary of Essential Utilities Inc., one of the largest publicly traded water, wastewater, and natural gas providers in America serving approximately five million people in 10 states. Carter previously ran his own construction management business, David Carter Group.

In a recent interview Daily Energy Insider conducted with the IUBDC board members, they explained the benefits of their collaborative efforts through the council and gave a glimpse of what Illinois’ clean energy future looks like from the perch of a utility.

The following interviews have been edited for length and clarity. 

Daily Energy Insider (DEI): How are you working with other utility board members at the IUBDC to help the state transition to a cleaner energy future?

Singh: The state’s Climate and Equitable Jobs Act (CEJA) puts Illinois on the path to 100 percent clean energy by 2050. It facilitates continued investments in modernizing Illinois’ electric grid — the poles, wires, and technology that deliver the reliable energy needed to power homes and businesses. It also contains provisions to increase production of affordable renewable energy, including construction of additional large-scale solar facilities. Collectively, IUBDC member companies are responsible for ensuring that renewables are integrated onto the distribution grid and energy is available at all times of the day to meet the needs of our customers.

Dallas: Natural gas and the infrastructure that transports it are foundational to Illinois’ clean energy goals. Nicor Gas is committed to delivering a clean, safe, reliable, and affordable energy choice — the natural gas our customers expect and deserve. We believe the best strategy capitalizes on the unique benefits that natural gas, renewables, electricity, nuclear power, and negative carbon initiatives provide and uses them in a portfolio approach.  

Hinton: We are talking about modernizing a system that spans across the city of Chicago, some of which is still operating from a time when it was first installed in the late 1800s. This drives value from a safety perspective, a reliability perspective, and an environmental sustainability perspective. The work is complicated, and the scale is large — replacing more than 2,000 miles of pipe across every neighborhood within the City of Chicago, but it’s necessary. Natural gas supports integration of more renewables on the grid by keeping the grid stable until modern renewable technology can be deployed at a larger scale. Smart investments in gas infrastructure can also help stabilize price swings and provide energy value for lower-income customers. 

Quiniones: IUBDC member companies are committed to bringing the benefits of a clean energy economy to our customers — especially those living in Equity Investment Eligible Communities. This requires continued infrastructure investments to sustain significant improvements in reliability, while bringing more renewable energy onto our system and meeting the challenges of climate change. And we must do this work in a manner that keeps costs affordable so our customers can fully realize the benefits of this clean and renewable energy. IUBDC board members also talk about how this transition will open the doors for more diverse participation in the energy supply chain, which holds exciting potential for suppliers, their communities, and the state of Illinois. 

DEI: How impactful has the collaboration between CEOs been thus far and why?

Losli: Through IUBDC, we are building upon existing business and personal relationships. Many of us are relatively new to our positions and new to the IUBDC Board. Because our industries are going through rapid change, having a platform to share ideas with one another has been vital. Although we lead employees in different industries, the daily challenges we face in meeting rising expectations of our employees, stakeholders, and customers are similar. Each of us can appreciate what the others are experiencing and see parallels in our goals, including increasing supplier diversity in our spending.

Carter: Rebecca said it well and I can relate because American Water and Aqua are in the same sector.  Our core business may be different than our electric and natural gas industry colleagues, but the end goal is the same: provide a reliable, essential service with the highest level of quality. I’m learning from the utility leaders and I hope they’re picking things up from me. Collaboration enables us to consider approaches to leading that are different from our traditional way of thinking. That’s good for everyone.

Singh: I echo what Rebecca and David have said. Sometimes in a leadership role you can get mired in the immediate, day-to-day issues of your own company or team and need to take a moment to consider how the industry itself is being impacted. That’s the benefit of the IUBDC. It provides us all with a structure to work together and get input from our peers. And when it comes to supplier diversity, the results are better when we work together to build that pipeline.

DEI: How has your membership in the IUBDC benefited your utility company?

Hinton: You can’t have a successful city or region or state — or even a company — without its major stakeholders having the opportunity for success. From an economic opportunity perspective, IUBDC’s work is hugely important for the communities we serve. Being part of the IUBDC has certainly enhanced our efforts.

Quiniones: It’s refreshing to see that IUBDC member companies do not view diversity as merely a “program” or a box to check. Rather, diversity is a core value, which is evident in the way IUBDC members strive to create opportunities to partner with diverse and minority-owned businesses. If you look at the reports we file with the Illinois Commerce Commission, you see the results. When you combine that fundamental commitment with the power of collaboration under the IUBDC umbrella, it’s clear that we can generate even more opportunities for growth. This is about more than just increasing our spend with diverse-owned businesses. It is about leading a systematic effort to expand the opportunity for diverse companies to succeed over the long haul and to show other industries in Illinois what can be accomplished when companies join forces to pursue these objectives.

Dallas: Supplier inclusion brings innovation, quality and overall competitive value to our organization. And when utilities work together to serve the state, it makes all of us better and stronger for our customers.  IUBDC makes that happen. Together, we’ve made an intentional effort to open doors for diverse businesses across all areas of our businesses with education and mentorship opportunities, and we continue to see the positive social and economic impact our work has on the lives of families in the communities we serve. 

Singh: The energy industry is evolving tremendously, and utilities are going to be spending and investing a significant amount of capital in modernizing our systems. Our focus is on ensuring that there is an equitable transition for the customers and the communities we serve — and that no one gets left behind in the process. IUBDC has been a catalyst to develop diverse workforces and make sure the programs and projects we implement contribute to all segments of the population from an equity perspective.

DEI: What are the top three areas of concern the IUBDC is currently working on?

  • Education and training

Singh: Our companies encounter high potential diverse businesses that could go to the next level with additional leadership training and support. IUBDC has taken on the challenge of building the pipeline of qualified suppliers into our own hands by partnering with the Kellogg Executive Program at Northwestern University. IUBDC-funded scholarships provide emerging leaders with a world-class training and development opportunity. Since its inception, the IUBDC has awarded eleven scholarships to leaders of certified Minority Business Enterprises.

  • Growing the pipeline of diverse suppliers in the professional services 

Hinton: We’re investing in building a modern physical infrastructure, and technical resources to support construction of these systems will always be in high demand. But with regulatory, technical, and legal complexities comes greater demand for specialists in everything from accounting and finance to law to information technology. We’re working to expand the available resource pool and build more relationships with minority-, women- and veteran-owned providers of professional services.

Dallas: As a founding member company of the IUBDC, we continue to play an essential role in efforts to grow business opportunities for diverse suppliers through collaboration, technical development and sharing of best practices. A good example is the partnership we have with First Women’s Bank — the only women-founded, women-owned and women-led commercial bank in the country. It’s headquartered right here in Illinois. This diverse business bank can help eliminate barriers to entry for more local diverse businesses by assisting with access to capital. Partnerships like this drive innovation within the supplier value chain and strengthen the pipeline of diverse suppliers for the future.

  • Opening doors for business opportunities 

Quiniones: We believe it is important to put utility sourcing professionals and diverse suppliers in the same room whenever we can. That is why we invite suppliers to receptions and conferences where they can connect and build relationships. We also partner with the Illinois Minority Supplier Diversity Council, as well as organizations supporting Hispanic, black and women-owned businesses. A notable example of the educational approach IUBDC is taking is the “How to do Business with Utilities” online seminar that we recently hosted for new vendors.

Losli: A few years ago, Illinois American Water acquired a wastewater system in southern Illinois. The deal included a consent decree to eliminate Sanitary Sewer Overflow (SSO), a condition in which untreated sewage is discharged from the sanitary sewer into the environment prior to reaching sewage treatment facilities. Since then, we have invested $7.6 million in improvements to eliminate SSOs in our system and through a partnership with a veteran-owned contractor. This is an example of being an environmental steward while also sourcing work from an underrepresented population. Our involvement in IUBDC helps keep us focused on delivering on our diversity, equity, and inclusion goals.

Carter: Our Supplier Mapping tool is a good example of putting IUBDC resources to work. This interactive, online portal was developed to increase visibility to diverse suppliers. It provides utility procurement specialists with insights into the availability of diverse supplier resources throughout our respective territories.