PG&E's new CEO outlines future plans to divide regionally, bury as many lines as possible
OAKLAND, Calif. - Pacific Gas and Electric has a new boss again. That's no surprise, but this one seems to have many different views on how to run a major utility.
Patricia Poppe, says she will lead with the best people and the newest technologies.
"We are at the beginning of a new era for PG&E," said Ms. Poppe, the latest CEO at PG&E, who had great success as a gas and electric CEO in south central Michigan.
She refers to herself not as a superior, but as a co-worker, spending time in Santa Rosa with co-workers who are burying power lines in high wind and fire prone areas.
"The revolving door at the top of this company has not served the people of California well. As an experienced utility executive, it was part of the draw to PG&E to come and make it right and make it safe," said Poppe who adds, "We've brought the best and brightest from both people who are here and people from around the country. We've all dedicated our lives to staying as long as it takes to make it right." It all leads to the uppermost short term priority. "We have taken a stand as a leadership team that catastrophic wildfires will stop and, we're gonna lead with love."
"Leading with love is making it right and keeping people safe," said the CEO.
Ms. Poppe knows full well, that PG&E's reputation is poor and that many would like to see it broken up or publicly run. "Most utilities are beloved by their citizens and their customers. PG&E will be again. I think there's some real benefits to the scope and scale of PG&E. The trick is: leveraging the benefits of a large company because we have the best practices, the best functions, the best contracts, the best pricing and the delivering it in a hometown way," said Poppe.
Poppe's operating philosophy is based on Toyota's near century-old formula for success. "Four basic plays: this is blocking and tackling. Number one: How are we doing today? Number two: Top to bottom, in the entire company, understanding how we're doing today. Number three: solving the problems that we see and number four: holding ourselves to a standard we can hold ourselves accountable to," said the CEO.
She's dividing the company into local regions to make it more responsive to local situations and needs. "We can build our company around serving those local communities, but leveraging the best of a big PG&E," said Poppe.
A big priority is to quit constantly trimming so many trees and bury as many power lines as possible.
"There's a time and place for burying the lines. I actually think there's more of a time and a place than there has been in the past. We have, in Butte County, already figured out, because we're burying all the lines in the Paradise community, how to reduce the cost by 50%," said Poppe. Where trees must be cut, go above and beyond state minimums as they are doing near Geyserville.
Keenly aware of climate change, she's adopting new technologies. "We have to build our system to the stands of the future, not the standards of today. We also believe that there's a lot we can do to reduce costs and improve our service," said Poppe.
Example: do not rely solely on big power plants, vast wind farms and massive solar arrays. Put in smaller ones at existing local substations, serving only that area to cut down on more widespread outages. In really remote or sparsely populated places, replace power lines with mini power stations. "A localized micro grid might be something as simple as a solar panel and a battery,"
Another priority: keep adding local power stations that are, in reality, batteries ready to supply power when demand skyrockets, to be recharged overnight when demand falls.
At Moss Landing, a fossil fuel power plant has been closed and re-fitted with enough batteries to power 100,000 homes energized.
"We can use that as a compliment to solar energy on the hottest day of the year and be there. We're doing that right now and we're prepared for summer," said Poppe.
Ms. Poppe says she sees a day coming soon when PG&E's own large banks of storage batteries plus enough electric cars and home batteries attached to the grid attached can be used to draw power from and avoid rolling blackouts and Public Safety Power Shutoffs altogether.
"And, we can do that with new technologies that were never available before and they are today and PG&E will lead the nation in the adoption of those new technologies," said the CEO.
Consumer and ratepayer advocates, the media, regulators and politicians, which will come back to quote from this very record, if things, once again go awry.