EEI Board of Directors: The road ahead for investor-owned utilities

Published on September 11, 2020 by Kim Riley

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Although faced with ongoing crises this year ranging from the pandemic to multiple natural disasters, the electric power industry is poised to take leadership on several important fronts, according to the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) Board of Directors.

“These leaders are continuing to drive our industry forward to support customers and what the customers need is clean affordable reliable energy. We’ve got the right team at EEI and the leadership to continue to be able to move that forward,” said Chris Crane, president and CEO of Exelon Corp., and EEI’s immediate past chairman, who on Sept. 10 moderated the concluding CEO roundtable that wrapped up EEI’s 2020 Virtual Leadership Summit.

Crane was joined by EEI Chairman Ben Fowke, chairman and CEO of Xcel Energy, and EEI vice chairmen Gerry Anderson, executive chairman at DTE Energy; Warner Baxter, chairman, president and CEO of Ameren Corp.; and Pedro Pizarro, president and CEO of Edison International.

“I think it’s really important that we’re out there continuing to lead and reduce carbon, while at the same time thinking about those long-term goals that require different technologies,” particularly those needed for the industry’s ongoing clean energy transformation, said Fowke. “That’s the initiative I really want to push.”

Technology innovation also has to be a major part of the industry’s clean energy transition, the board chairman said.

“Our industry, my company — we’ve done a lot to reduce carbon; renewable energy has played a big role in that, but at some point, as we all know, the big grid does get saturated,” Fowke said. “You can only have so much renewables on the big grid. And for us, and for many of our companies, it will be a big part of our 80 percent carbon reduction goal by 2030, and our no-carbon goal by 2050.”

At the same time, he added, “the last 20 percent of carbon is going to require technologies to be commercially and economically viable that aren’t today. So, we need to start investing today and nurturing those technologies so that they can be ready for tomorrow.”

The right policy frameworks also will help the industry move forward in this area in the years and decades to come, Fowke said.

“None of us know what 2021 is going to bring in Washington and how that will change the landscape,” said Crane.

DTE Energy’s Anderson said that his company’s strategy, like others, is now defined by the clean energy transition. “What looked so challenging a decade ago now looks like an opportunity to transition much of the economy to electricity, to grow fundamentally in the process, and to do something we’ll all really be proud of,” he said. “It’s challenging for sure, but a great opportunity.”

Rosemead, Calif.-based Edison International, which is simultaneously managing rolling blackouts, some of the state’s most-prolonged, widespread wildfires, and an unprecedented pandemic, also has a clean energy strategy, said Pizarro, who became CEO in 2016.

“A clean energy-led pathway that has clean energy, has renewables,” is the way forward, Pizarro said, noting that it’s equally important “to have a lot more storage built into the system to provide that shock absorber so that we can use that clean energy to electrify a lot of society.”

In its 2019 Sustainability Report, for instance, Edison International reported that its largest subsidiary, Southern California Edison Co. (SCE), has cut the emissions from delivered electricity nearly in half since 2005, providing an estimated 48 percent carbon-free electricity to customers.

SCE also has launched Charge Ready Transport, the largest truck and transit charging initiative in the nation, and added infrastructure to support more than 200 new light-duty vehicle charge ports, according to Pizarro, while in May SCE also announced one of the largest energy storage procurements in the United States.

Pizarro, who expects more infrastructure deployment investments down the road, particularly around electric vehicles, and the other CEOs also highlighted the industry’s investments in smarter energy infrastructure.

The member companies of EEI, which represents all of the nation’s investor-owned electric companies, currently invest more than $110 billion each year, on average, to make the energy grid smarter, cleaner, more efficient, and more secure, according to EEI, which says such investments also have a major impact on jobs and the economy.

“Customers want cleaner, more reliable, more resilient energy,” said Ameren’s Baxter. “Collaboratively, as an industry, we have been working to make sure that we have policies in place to support those investments…. At the same time we make these investments, we’re creating thousands and thousands of jobs across this country.”

Baxter added that while federal policies are in place to support investments in a timely manner, it’s a work in progress. “We’ve made good progress over the years as an industry,” he said, “but more needs to be done.”

Racial injustice also was a topic that the CEOs discussed.

Fowke pointed out that the May 25 murder of a black man named George Floyd by four white police officers happened “right in our backyard of Minneapolis,” where Xcel Energy is headquartered.

The situation, he said, “really gave me an opportunity to reflect.”

“There’s more that I can do as a CEO. There’s more that I think the industry can do. It’s not to say that we haven’t done good work, but let’s do more. Let’s make a difference in our communities. Let’s do a better job hiring, retaining and promoting people of color,” said Fowke. “There’s a lot of best practices out there. I think as an industry we can really come together and adopt more best practices to make a difference.”

Fowke also said that while racial injustice has been a long-term problem, he thinks the utilities can come together to make changes, “just like anything else we tackle as an industry.”