She was fast, fun and effective: Mary Powell leaves GMP

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She was fast, fun and effective: Mary Powell leaves GMP

Sat, 01/18/2020 - 2:00pm -- tim

by Joyce Marcel, Vermont Business Magazine A visionary lives in the future. Mary Powell, who has just stepped down after 12 years as CEO of Green Mountain Power, lives in many futures. Vermont has benefited greatly from her visions.

In 2012, it was impressive when Powell combined two utilities into one (anyone remember Central Vermont Public Service?).

Then she introduced Vermonters to heat pumps and the Powerwall storage battery. She made sure to have line crews standing ready all over the state whenever storms were predicted.

She significantly reduced Vermont's carbon footprint.

She created the first B-Corp utility in the country, committing to the use of business as a force for good.

In 2019 she was voted the best utility executive in the United States.

Her customers give Green Mountain Power an above-90 percent satisfaction rate.

She created a company culture of  “Yes!”

Her favorite word is “incredible.”

She drives a Tesla.

She calls Elon Musk by his first name.

She leaps tall buildings in a single bound.

All but that last sentence is true.

Powell, 59, who describes herself as “customer obsessed,” spent her last day on the job on the last day of last year. She has been replaced at the helm of GMP by her senior vice president, Mari McClure.

“I've been working with my board on this transition for well over a year and a half,” Powell told me. “It's been something I'm excited about. I absolutely could not be more thrilled by having the role taken over by Mari McClure. It's awesome. Even more important, when you've been in this role of CEO, what you really think and care about is the next chapter of the company. You want to leave it in a position to soar even more than it did under your leadership. I built on the success of the people who came before me, and I have no doubt that Mari will build on our success.”

Simply put, Powell is a joy to be with. Even over the phone, she bubbles with energy and enthusiasm. From the beginning, she saw GMP as less a poles-and-wire electric company than an “energy transformation company, thinking of energy as a service and meeting customers in terms of where they're at.”

She proceeded to successfully change the company and the culture to meet her vision.

That vision is multi-faceted and deeply appreciated.

Mary Powell, former CEO of Green Mountain Power. GMP photo.

Middlebury College Professor Bill McKibben, an international leader in the fight against climate change, said, “After doing a lot of reporting on utilities for The New Yorker, I said at one point that you could count the forward-thinking utility executives of America on the fingers of one finger. That would be Mary Powell. She was interested in renewable energy from the jump; she gets that the climate crisis will drive energy policy going forward and that utilities could indeed play a role; she was one of the only utility execs who made the trip to California for the launch for the game-changing Powerwall battery. And she's definitely the only one who has divested her utility's pension fund from fossil fuel stocks.”

Her boss agrees completely.

Sophie Brochu is the CEO of Gaz Metro, the Canadian parent of Hydro-Quebec, which was recently rebranded as the large diversified energy company Energir, with more than $7 billion in assets. GMP is one of its subsidiaries.

Brochu is also retiring, but she said there is no connection to Powell's retirement except “by the stars.”

“I was never really Mary's boss,” Brochu said. “There is a relationship because there's an owner and a CEO. So in a traditional way, I was her boss. But I never entertained such a relationship. Instead, it's a meeting of the minds. Mary is very creative person. She's a visionary. She's a great leader of teams. My only contribution was to encourage her. My job was to support her visions for her customers and her teams. In that way, I interacted with her.

“She's an inspiration for all of us.”

Governor Phil Scott agrees.

“Mary has spent the better part of the last two decades leading her organization and community towards a better future and through difficult times,” he said. “From her professional work to the charitable organizations she devotes her time to, Mary has made a positive difference in Vermont.”

GMP employs 512 people, 283 of which are union members. Its 2019 revenue was $699 million, and it has $2.5 billion in assets.

Powell is a happy person who has openly faced many personal challenges. In one of those “annus horribillis” or, as she put it, “transformative” years, her mother died and she was eight months pregnant with her daughter when her house burned to the ground.

In 2015 she went public with her decision to have a double mastectomy after discovering that she had inherited the genes that predict breast cancer. After the surgery, it turned out both her breasts tested positive for cancer.

But in typical Powell fashion, when she wrote about it, she ended her piece with, “I feel like the luckiest person in Vermont.”

Today Powell is both happy and healthy and simply delighted with her job and her future.

Mary Powell with Senator Patrick Leahy and Governor Peter Shumlin in 2014 at the launching of an EV charging station at the Red Hen Bakery in Middlesex. VBM photo.

Powell goes into retirement with plans to help her husband, Mark Brooks, a professional chef, run a company she co-founded with him in 1994 called Spot the Dog; the company makes reflective gear and energy bars for dogs.

“This doesn't feel like retirement at all,” Powell said. “Mark has made this a fantastic company and now the two of us have our work cut out for us. It's a beautiful coincidence that just as we were announcing my retirement, Oprah Winfrey chose Spot the Dog as one of her favorite things. NBC did a piece about it. So did Seven Days. And as most people know, there is a profound Oprah effect. I have this ready-made opportunity to do something. I have a long- standing passion about dogs. And we give 10 percent of our sales revenue to Rescue. I'm hoping Oprah chooses us again next year.”

This year Oprah chose 79 things as her favorites, and Spot the Dog stands alongside Lady Gaga's makeup kits, matching Christmas family pajama sets and matte glass candles. Spot the Dog was the only Vermont company chosen.

Powell's retirement, however, is being dogged (ahem) by whispered suggestions about a run for public office. When I asked her, she said she wasn't ruling anything out.

“As you know, I have an incredible amount of drive and energy,” Powell said. “I love Vermont and I want to see good things happen. I'm highly complimented. It's humbling and an honor that people see me useful in that kind of a role. Right now I'm trying to honor my role with my family, take a little time and not choose something out of the gate. Spot the Dog gives me a chance to do something I love while giving me a breather from the pace I've been at.”

While Vermont is heading toward an election year, Powell doesn't seem to crave the governor's job.

“Who knows what's going to happen in Vermont?” Powell said. “Our current leaders are, in my opinion, doing a good job for Vermont. And they all enjoy strong popularity with Vermonters.”

One idea being passed around is that she will wait for Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt) to retire before going down to Washington to kick some butt. After all, she described herself to Seven Days as “a lifelong Democrat.”

One of the people talking about it is Christine Hallquist, former CEO of the Vermont Electric Cooperative (Powell is a VEC customer) and the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial candidate. She said it would be about time Vermont sent a woman to Washington.

“She would represent us well in Washington,” Hallquist said. “It's time for her to take the challenge and do a great job.”

Hallquist praised Powell's understanding that climate change should be a huge driver of change in the utility industry.

“As long as I've known her, she's been very focused on a long-term vision, and she's been doing it in quite a public way,” Hallquist said. “But the industry is very conservative. It's one of the most change-averse industries I've dealt with. It's understandable, because the industry has been heavily invested in fossil fuel, and of course they're going to try and protect those investments. So the idea of moving towards a world of renewable energy is quite radical. So for Mary to be taking the position she did for so long is really impressive. Vermont should be very grateful for having her as a leader. And the industry demographic is 79 percent male, so for a woman like her to be a leader in the industry is remarkable.”

Even with such support, Powell isn't willing to talk about a future away from Spot the Dog.

“It's a very compelling feeling, seeing women go down to DC,” Powell said. “It's been exciting to see women stepping into political leadership with the #MeToo movement and the horrible leadership we have. From a woman's perspective, it is particularly a compelling time to feel that you want to be part of changing the story.”

Whatever she does next and wherever she goes, Powell will still inspire superlatives.

Former presidential candidate and former Governor Howard Dean said, “I'm a huge fan. She's been great. She's been incredible.”

Dean remembered how Powell created the current GMP by buying and merging her smaller company with CVPS. It was a significant achievement, he said, but he thinks she will be remembered most for her leadership in the field of renewables.

“She's a national example of what a utility executive should be doing,” Dean said. “If every utility executive would be like Mary Powell, the carbon footprint of the United States would be much, much smaller. Yes, she's done a great job holding down rates. And from a business point of view, the merger was the bigger deal. But the really big deal is reducing the carbon footprint. GMP is a national model.”

Powell is a “leadership role model,” said David Wolk, superintendent of the Rutland City School District and a board member at GMP. He called Powell “an amazingly impressive woman” and “a creative thinker.”

“She's so authentic,” Wolk said. “She's never been intoxicated with her importance in the world. She is not ego-driven. One of the reasons the morale at GMP has been so phenomenal is she's treated everyone from linemen to customer service folks to staff throughout the state with the utmost respect. And they've returned it to her. I used to be Vermont's Commissioner of Education as well as a university president, and I study leadership. She is a quintessential leader. It is about passion. It is about doing the right thing even when no one is watching. It's about courage. Hemingway defined it as 'grace under pressure.' She is a person of the utmost integrity. She has that quality that's defined by the word 'gravitas.' She has dignity. She commands the respect of all who know her.”

Powell's friend Elizabeth Bankowski, who now heads the Windham Foundation, is also a long-standing GMP board member.

She said, “Mary can continue to chart her own course. She's at the height of her accomplishments.”

Powell was successful on many levels, Bankowski said.

“You don't often find this in one person,” Bankowski said. “She led GMP through tremendous growth. She developed a first-class team of people. She was way out ahead on innovation, especially on remediation of climate change. She's out on the dirt roads with the crews when there are major storms. She's completely accessible to line people as well as everyone else. Think of all the innovation she's brought around heat pumps, the electrification of transportation and alternative energy. The end result is that she's built a strong and very successful business. She's the CEO. It's not like she does any one thing. She's the conductor, and a really talented one. She set the tone and the goals and the culture and that's been hugely successful.”

GMP has more favorables in customer satisfaction than Ben & Jerry's Homemade, Bankowski said.

Photo: Mary Powell with Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield for the B-Corp announcement in 2014. VBM photo.

“I never thought a utility company could create a brand, but that's exactly what's happened,” she said. “That was a team of people who made it possible, but Mary led it. She made it look easy. And it's not easy.”

David Coates, a retired KPMG partner who has been the financial advisor to a long line of governors, said, “Mary has great instincts. Gut instincts. The ability to see around corners. She really anticipates what's coming down the road, and that's why we're so far ahead in terms of other utilities. If there's one word that would describe Mary, it's 'love.' Mary is love. She loves everybody. She loves her family, her dogs, the people at GMP and her customers.”

Of course you can't please everybody, and Powell has been at the center of many controversies.

Remember when smart meters were going to insidiously communicate to the utility our private data? And/or negatively affect our brain waves?

Now there is concern that the controlling partner of Energir is connected to an oil and gas pipeline, hardly in line with GMP's avowed intention to be 100 percent renewable by 2030.

Another controversy centers around renewable energy credits (RECs). Whoever buys the RECs can then claim the environmental value of that energy, even though the buyer did not generate that clean power (GMP both buys and sells them.)

Some people see RECs as a shell game instead of an incentive to create more green energy.

Also, 27.9 percent of GMP's power comes from the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant in New Hampshire, which does not sit well with anti-nuclear activists. (GMP plans to phase-out nuclear because it is not renewable.)

Activists also say the hydropower it buys from Canada through Hydro-Quebec, which is 60.6 percent of its power load, threatens First Nations land and the environment.

And only 1.7 percent of GMP's energy comes from solar, which angers companies which sell and promote solar panels in the state.

Another area of grumbling, if not controversy, is Powell's annual salary.

GMP’s compensation philosophy puts a larger amount of its CEO pay ‘at risk,’ which means more of her compensation is based on actual customer-centric results, and less is guaranteed.

Powell's base salary is $589,000. She also earns incentive pay, which is paid only based on results delivered on multiple metrics benefitting Vermont customers.

Her short term incentive compensation (meeting short term goals) was $328,000. Her long term incentive compensation (meeting long term goals) is $504,000. This makes her total compensation $1.4 million, half of which is paid by customers, the other half (much of the incentive compensation) paid by Energir.

Plus, over the course of her 22-year career, she has accrued a retirement plan worth about $2.1 million.

These figures are in line with other CEO salaries and have no impact on customers’ energy bills, but to Vermonters who have to work three jobs to stay afloat, it breeds a certain amount of discontent.

It also helps to note, if you happen to be one of the discontented, that Powell's compensation is in the 25th percentile (lowest 25%) for leaders of utilities/companies of similar size, which means that about 75% of comparable companies pay more. Her compensation is also less than her two male predecessors at GMP and CVPS, and both men were leading smaller companies.

But when it comes to controversies, who can forget the raging battles over wind? Especially the one over the successful Kingdom Community Wind Project on Lowell Mountain? Or the failed attempt to put windmills on a ridge line in the Deerfield Valley?

“Because of Mary Powell's ill-considered choice to move ahead with Lowell Wind, over tremendous opposition from credible environmentalists, Vermonters have become educated about the issues surrounding wind energy,” said Annette Smith, executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment. “In sum, Mary Powell has assured that wind energy on Vermont’s mountains is dead.”

Powell's achievements far outweigh the concerns. Some have been hard to fathom.

For example, Vermont is a tiny state and GMP only serves approximately 265,000 Vermont residential and business customers, yet it was on Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies in the World list three years in a row: 2017, 2018, and 2019. J.D. Power’s 2018 and 2019 rankings put GMP among top utilities for customer satisfaction.

Besides running GMP, Powell sits on many boards. She is the chair of The Solar Foundation, and a director of the Rocky Mountain Institute, Vermont Mutual Insurance Company, Sunrun, Energir and Hawaii Electric.

Powell has won many statewide and national accolades. In 2014, she was recognized by Powergen as the Woman of the Year. In 2015, the Burlington Free Press named her Vermonter of the Year. In 2016, Fast Company named her one of the 100 most creative people in business. In 2017, she was named one of the top 25 Most Influential Women of the Mid-Market by CEO Connection.

In 2018, Conscious Capitalism Media (CCM), a global company, named Powell to its list of 30 World-Changing Women in Conscious Business.

Also in 2018, she won the prestigious Rachel Carson Award, which honors distinguished female leaders impacting the environmental world.

She was also named Executive of the Year by Utility Dive, an industry newsletter which honors “top disruptors and innovators.”

The Early Years

Powell is the youngest of the three children of Obie-award winning actor Addison Powell, who worked in films and television alongside stars like Steve McQueen, Robert Redford, Gregory Peck and Frank Sinatra.

His most enduring role was Dr Lang on the 1960s American Gothic soap opera “Dark Shadows.”

Powell was born and raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Because her father refused to take menial jobs between his acting gigs, she grew up with a certain sense of financial insecurity.

“From early on, I knew I was going to have to be self-supporting,” she told me when I did my first profile of her in 2012. “So I just started finding things I could do.”

She started with babysitting, moved on to dog walking and scooping ice cream. Although she grew up around the arts, she never felt pulled in that direction.

“I didn't feel I had enough talent to make a go of it,” she told me.

VEC's Christine Hallquist, WEC's Patty Richards, GMP's Mary Powell, and Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger listen to Governor Phil Scott at a Burlington Electric Department EV incentive event in 2017. VBM photo

Her family had strong connections to Vermont and spent their summers here. She wanted to go to college in Vermont but couldn't afford it. Instead, she settled on Keene State nearby in New Hampshire.

A summer receptionist's job at a fast-growing money market fund jump-started her career.

“It was one of those classic stories,” she said. “I kinda fell into the right place at the right time.”

She stayed with that first company for eight years, during which time the $200 million fund grew into $3.5 billion. When she left, she was associate director of operations.

In Vermont

When Powell and Brooks moved to Vermont on January 16, 1989, it was to downsize and leave behind their stressful, big city careers.

Still, Powell's first Vermont job was as the human resources director for what was then the state's Department of Personnel. She got the job at the end of the Madeleine Kunin era.

After Kunin left office, Powell worked for Richard Snelling and then Howard Dean — that made three governors in three and a half years.

When Powell left state government, her entrepreneurial talents kicked in; she and Brooks started Spot the Dog to protect their dogs from hunters and traffic.

Brooks is a classically Swiss-trained chef; he then put his decades of experience and his culinary gifts into Yaff Bars, an energy bar that can be enjoyed by humans as well as their dogs. It is a product that doesn't exist anywhere else on the retail market.

Powell next went to Key Bank, where she worked in HR for five years. There she met David Coates, who became her mentor.

“I was chair of Key Bank's board of directors and she was in charge of human resources,” Coates said. “I got to know her in that role. Then we had hired a president that really didn't measure up appropriately. This president was asked to leave the bank. People were leaving right and left. One of them was Mary. She told me this person didn't have an appropriate leadership style.”

Powell had already started a second company, a human resources consulting firm. She consulted for a few banks, plus well-known Vermont companies like Bruegger’s and April Cornell.

She enjoyed working as a consultant because it gave her time to be at home with her baby daughter. (Alex is now 23 and working in radio.) And it helped Powell decide that her talent was in strategic organizational development, or “matching together where you want to go from a visionary perspective in a business with what you're trying to accomplish from a human resources perspective.”

But Coates wasn't having any of it. He needed help finding an interim president.

“I literally begged her to join me while we were looking for a new president,” Coates said. “She came back on the basis that she would head up retail. We worked together for about six months. She did a whale of a job on the retail side. We hired a new president. Mary did come to me during the end of the CEO search and asked if she should put her name in. She didn't have as much banking experience as the others. I said Mary, 'Your time will come.'”

And so it did. One of her consulting clients happened to be GMP, which was then in crisis. Its CEO, Chris Dutton, was truly impressed with Powell and offered her a job. She declined three times.

“GMP was filled with smart, talented people, but when you walked in, it felt very bureaucratic and oppressive,” Powell said.

“Next thing I know, I get a call from former Governor Tom Salmon and Chris Dutton,” Coates said. “They didn't want to lose her because she had so much potential. There was really no end to where she could go in the company. So I went to Mary — I told this tale at her going away party — and asked her. She says, 'Why would I want to work for stodgy old white guys running a stodgy old utility?' I said, 'Mary, you have to trust me. I really believe they are not that way. What have you got to lose?' That was over 20 years ago. As a result of her joining that company, GMP is the most innovative and exciting energy company in the country.”

One of Powell's first acts was to move the company from its flashy South Burlington “executive palace,” according to Coates, to a warehouse in Colchester.

“Mary was in charge of renovations,” he said. “She did an unbelievable job. She started the open workplace environment movement in the State of Vermont. Now private offices are few and far between. That's part of her leadership. She flattened the organization. The lowest workers, even the linemen, felt comfortable going to the CEO. There were no barriers.”

Powell helped lead a significant downsizing at GMP that made it leaner, more effective, more efficient and financially sound. She cut staffing in half by depending on buy-outs and retirements; only one person had to be fired. She also radically changed the corporate culture.

“I feel the biggest impact I made is the complete transformation of the culture,” Powell said.

Enlarging GMP

In the spring of 2007, GMP was bought by the parent company of Canada's Gaz Metro for $187 million. Sophie Brochu came on to lead the company at the same time Powell did. Then Gaz Metro rebranded itself as Energir — the name implies energy moving forward.

“Sophie has been leading the same transition,” Powell said. “She's moved the company a lot towards renewable resources. Wind in Canada, for one thing. And she acquired a solar company. From Sophie, we have 150 percent support for what we've done. The whole structure is aligned about transforming the energy system.”

In 2008 Dutton retired and, with the GMP board singing Powell's praises, she became CEO. There were a few strong years, but then rating companies like Standard & Poor's and Moody's started doubting the ability of small utility companies to generate investment capital.

Change was needed.

Merging Vermont’s two largest utilities was something people had talked about for over 40 years. On the surface it seemed like a slam dunk, but in reality it would be as complex a corporate merger as one can imagine.

With dueling cities, two different corporate cultures, political intrigue and touch of xenophobia — Vermont’s utilities might be owned by a Canadian company! —it took a natural leader and negotiator to pull it off.

When CVPS put itself out for auction in 2010, Powell jumped into action.

In 2012, she won the day with a bid that pointedly emphasized the savings to Vermonters that would come from having both companies merge.

The deal closed for $702 million.

“Mary was the driving force behind the merger,” said David Coates. “What Mary and her team brought to the table was the fact that there was a better savings for Vermont to have two Vermont companies merging. It would create a company that would be much more efficient and effective. By consolidating, you can have hubs. And the service is better.”

One thing Coates and Powell discovered back then was a “bubble” in the state's employment — too many people were getting close to retirement at the same time. Using information technology, they realized that they could eliminate positions as people retired without laying anyone off.

This was a key part of Powell’s strategy when she had to trim the workforce at GMP, and also played a major part in how she combined the staffs of GMP and CVPS.

At the end of the restructuring, the company had radically trimmed costs and improved service.

To assuage the city of Rutland, where CVPS had been headquartered, Powell pledged to make Rutland a solar capitol.

Photo: Mary Powell with former Rutland Mayor Chris Louras and Denise Wilson of NRG in Rutland in 2015. Courtesy photo.

In September of 2015, she was joined by Congressman Peter Welch, then-Governor Peter Shumlin and Rutland community leaders to announce that Rutland had become the Solar Generation Capital of New England.

“More solar power is generated in Rutland per capita than in any other New England city,” VBM reported back then. “This has been a goal years in the making as the community has come together to make energy innovation a key to economic development and Rutland’s revitalization.”

Powell was quoted as saying, “We are so honored to take part in the phenomenal transformation of this great city. We set this goal years ago and through a tremendous amount of grit, determination, innovation and collaboration, we have reached our goal to establish Rutland as the solar capital of New England. Even more important, Rutland is becoming a model for the future of how locally grown energy is the backbone of a new innovative model of delivery. We, along with so many others, have invested in this city, our customers and our community, and the results are amazing.”

Rutland's Stafford Hill Solar Farm is one aspect of Green Mountain Power's Rutland strategy.

Completed in July of 2015, the 2,500 kilowatt project brought total installed solar capacity in Rutland, including home and community systems, to 7,870 kilowatts, the most per capita of any city in the six-state region.

Moreover, GMP's bullish support for green energy started attracting other solar businesses.

GMP now has five solar storage facilities. Stafford Hill was the first, and it is the only one in Rutland. There is also a solar storage facilities in Panton on Lake Champlain. This year brought on-line three more, one in Ferrisburgh, one in Essex and one in Milton.

These utility-scale solar batteries store energy generated by solar panels. Then during peak demand times on the grid — say, during a heat wave — the company draws on the stored energy in the batteries to reduce the demand.

This means they are using clean energy instead of the dirtier energy that gets generated during peak demand, when all sources are putting out power.

It can also reduce costs, because peak energy is a big cost driver. It uses innovation to leverage lower costs, which are then passed on to consumers.

A network of stored energy saves consumers money, GMP believes. It provides resiliency in back-up power. It makes it quicker to return power to homes and businesses during storms.

Consumer Goods

Powell kept taking surveys until she was certain she knew what her Vermont customers wanted. "We have built into our DNA the cultural foundations and the customer obsession,” she told the utility newsletter Utility Dive when it named her 2019 Executive of the Year.

Not surprisingly, what her customers wanted was green power at a reasonable rate.

GMP "set a really big, hairy, audacious goal," Powell told Utility Dive, to reach into Vermonters' homes and transform their own “energy portfolios.”

Soon GMP was in the business of providing heat pumps.

At first people bought them to heat water; then because of the interest and demand, GMP was soon leasing out home heating-cooling-dehumidifying devices.

“Heat pumps are so efficient because they transfer heat from the air instead of using energy to generate heat like an oil furnace,” says the GMP Web site. “This same magic machine can heat and cool your home at the drop of a hat – one product – 2 uses.”

The green building community took immediate note.

“Green Mountain Power, which has some 265,000 residential and business customers, first started a heat pump program in 2013 in the Rutland area,” said The Green Building Advisor. “It had planned to include up to 200 customers, but within a week more than twice that number said they were interested. Not everyone who applied could take advantage of the program, either because their homes did not have open floor plans to encourage heat circulation or because the wood stoves they had were already heating efficiently. But by 2014, the utility was renting 150 heat pumps.”

Homeowners who signed up for the program were able to finance the cost of the installation over 15 years, making loan payments from $49 to $81 per month for a single-head heat pump and more for a two-headed one.

There was no down payment; installation and maintenance was paid for by the company. Green Mountain Power estimated that heating bills could be reduced by between 25% and 50%. But of course, since electricity powers the heat pumps, homes use more power.

It is interesting to know, however, that GMP does not make a profit by selling more energy to run its leased heat pumps. It actually makes no profit at all on the sale of electricity. All power supply costs are a direct pass-through to customers. There's no markup thanks to state regulation.

The company claims that now over 1,000 GMP customers are currently enrolled in what they call the “heat pump community.” (In the interests of full disclosure, I am one of them.)

Batteries

GMP was the first utility to partner with Tesla to bring home energy storage to the state. It was a pioneering venture and other utilities now look to the successes GMP has had.

The reasoning behind the interest in home batteries was simple. Because of climate change, Vermont has been experiencing more storms. Five of the largest storms the state has experienced — with power outages — have happened since 2011.

Tropical Storm Irene was the first, and Vermonters might see many more. It wasn't enough to have utility-sized storage facilities in different parts of the state. What if people could store power in their homes?

"The minute we heard that Tesla — we caught wind, back-channel — that they were working on this home storage technology, we naturally said we want to be there, we want to be part of it," Powell told Utility Dive.

So Powell and GMP's vice president and chief innovation officer, Josh Castonguay, worked closely with Tesla's head of product, Arch Rao, "on designing the Green Mountain Power program that allowed customers to essentially rent the battery, that allowed GMP to then control the battery when they see great peaking events," Rao told Utility Dive during the Solar Power International conference.

Photo: Mary Powell watches a Tesla home battery installation in 2016. Courtesy photo.

Powerwall batteries actually provide a service to all customers, even those without them, according to GMP. That's because during those peak demand times on the grid, GMP is able to draw on stored energy to reduce costs.

For example, it was able to show savings of $500,000 direct to customers during the 2018 heat wave. Also, during the recent Halloween storm, GMP was able, because of its network of stored energy, to have 1,100 customers use power from Powerwall batteries. It was the system's first big test, and it passed.

The program has since expanded to allow customers to use other storage devices.

Powell "is one of the most forward-thinking CEOs that I know," Rao said. "Sure, Green Mountain Power is small in terms of their overall load on the grid in Vermont or in terms of their number of customers, but they are so incredibly dedicated to adopting new technologies, it is very encouraging for us, the technology vendors."

Electronic Transportation

Next up? Cars, of course.

Powell chooses to drive a Tesla because, “I wanted the range and it was incredibly safe for all the driving I do in my job.”

Now she wants others to start driving electric vehicles (EVs) — and soon. That's why GMP is offering strong rebates for electric vehicles and giving away chargers that synch up with the grid.

It is also pushing electric bikes, electric mowers and even electric forklifts which are usually run on a fossil fuel such as propane.

Shifting to an electric car or forklift saves carbon emissions. And GMP programs are designed to make doing the right thing simple.

“But I don't see us becoming a car dealership,” Powell said. “Earlier this year, we were hosting a lot of drive events at our locations. We've had tons of customers come, those of us who drive EVs. There's a lot we can do about demystifying electric transportation. And incentivizing customers to move to electric transportation. I'm not trying to inspire people to move to an electric vehicle, but to share the energy relationship with us. If you're a GMP customer and go to an electric vehicle, share the charger.”

She reminded me of the irony that she, herself, is not a GMP customer. She lives in South Hero, which is in Vermont Electric Co-op territory. But she still finds the Tesla cost-effective.

“I haven't been to a gas station or charging station in months,” Powell said. “I get home, I plug it in. In the morning I have a full tank of gas. Just come home and charge and the charger starts charging. If the grid system is hitting a peak, it doesn't matter. If I was a GMP customer I would plug it in, but if I wanted to share the charger with GMP, it would make sure I was charging at the time when energy was the cheapest. That's a way of making sure that the customer gets what she wants, but the whole grid and other Vermonters are benefitting.”

The Future

So what will the future look like for Mary Powell? State-wide elected official? US congresswoman? US senator? Player on the national stage? Climate change warrior on the international stage? Or is she really going to the dogs? (Ouch).

Another good question: are the changes Powell created sustainable? Especially in a country like ours that denies climate change while it supports and increases fossil fuel dependency?

“They are absolutely sustainable,” Powell said. “We're radically transformed. We're now at 60 percent renewable and 90 percent carbon free. We now have significant wind generation. We now have over 400 megawatts of solar. We have transformed the energy system. We're now helping Vermonters transform transportation with electric cars, and home heating with heat pumps and batteries. The electric supply over the last 10 years has become radically greener. That love of customers, that love of the planet, that love of innovation and transformation — it's home-, business- and community-based. I think the path we're on is absolutely sustainable, and the goals we've laid out are absolutely achievable.”

In terms of social justice however, Powell thinks there's room for improvement.

“Especially for women,” she said. “One of the great gifts of being in this role was providing inspiration for other women, letting them know that they too can accomplish ambitious things. I feel like we've made progress, but we have a way to go. I'd like to see that we've stopped needing that conversation about what is it like to be woman in leadership. It's a reflection of how far we have to go in this society. When I took the utility role, I was one of two or three women in the whole United States. Now I'm happy to say it's grown to be 20 percent. But still, when you look at the demographic, it should be more like 50 percent. I feel like we've made progress, but we've got a way to go.”

Love may be her legacy after all.

“I feel like what my legacy will be — maybe it's what I hope it will be — is that all the great stuff came out of my love of people,” Powell said. “The people I work with. The people I serve. I feel the biggest impact I made is the complete transformation of the culture. Pulling off the merger was a big one. But at Green Mountain Power we absolutely love our customers. That love of customers and that customer obsession and that love of Vermont economic value, plus all the energy transformation? I always said I wanted to make Green Mountain Power fast, fun and effective. We created a culture of the elimination of bureaucracy. Of moving with trust and respect for each other. I hope that's the cornerstone of my legacy, my leadership style and my orientation towards life.”

Joyce Marcel is a journalist in southern Vermont. In 2017 she was named the best business magazine profile writer in the country by the Alliance of Area Business Publications. She is married to Randy Holhut. He is also the news editor/acting operations manager of The Commons, a weekly newspaper in Brattleboro.