by Stephen Lacey
May 18, 2017

Stephen Lacey: Mary Powell is definitely not your typical utility executive. Since becoming CEO of Green Mountain Power in 2008, she has turned the corporate culture on its head and made Vermont's biggest utility into a startup in many ways. We talked on stage at the Clean Energy Trust Challenge, a business plan competition organized by the Clean Energy Trust in Chicago. Shoutout to the folks at the Trust who put together a fine event. A big shoutout to the entrepreneurs who pitched their companies. These were not your stereotypical founders who think an app is going to solve everyone's problems. These were folks developing new water purification methods, crop monitoring capabilities, grid switching hardware, and a whole host of other tech.

I was sitting there in front of a bunch of startups and investors with Mary Powell. I explained that she was like a kindred spirit to the folks in the crowd. As I said, she's applied many of the startup principles that make young companies creative. She's unrelenting in her desire to engage directly with customers. She actually talks to customers to spark new ideas in employees and getting them interacting in different ways, building new products, and re-imagining the power delivery business model itself.

She used to call Green Mountain Power the "un-utility," but now she tries not to use the word "utility" at all. This was one of my favorite conversations in recent memory. Let us know what you think. Tweet at me or Mary herself. You can find her @MaryGPowell on Twitter. Without further ado, here's Mary starting off talking about why she doesn't even describe Green Mountain Power as a utility.

Mary Powell: Why do I say that? A part of it is, honestly, our COO was talking to a team that came up that wanted to understand more about our innovation that we're doing, because again, what we're doing is viewed as incredibly provocative in the space in which we operate, though to us, it feels like common sense, to tell you the truth. It really is about accelerating a consumer-led revolution to distribute a generation and energy independence. That's really what we're all about. We're really envisioning a future where we move to having the bulk power system moved to the backup system, and the primary system be a community home and business-based energy system.

We think of ourselves as an energy transformation company. What that means in being the "un-utility," kind of where it started, was creating a company that was fast, fun and effective, creating a company that had a culture of yes, not a culture of no. This industry that has been around an incredibly long time has an amazing amount of bureaucracy and, I would say, wax buildup. We really believe ultimately in the line that "culture eats strategy." I think the original line was culture eats strategy for breakfast. As I like to say, we believe it eats it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Our transformation really started with a cultural revolution within Green Mountain Power.

Stephen Lacey: What does that mean exactly? How does that impact the way that you hire folks, the talent pool that you're reaching out to? I understand that it really did actually impact who you were looking to employ at Green Mountain Power, right?

Mary Powell: Absolutely. It really started with, again, a dramatic cultural revolution. What did that look like? It's kind of famous that I turned down the job of working for Green Mountain Power three times. I obviously finally accepted it. I'm pleased to say I was wrong. It's been a great and an amazing opportunity to be there.

Stephen Lacey: You accepted it, then you said, "I'm gong to dismantle this place."

Mary Powell: Kind of, yes. Kind of. You need a catalyst. What happened is I accepted it. It was funny because when I was interviewing and talking to them, they had this request for this really big rate increase. I had a natural disdain for the industry a little bit, to tell you the truth. I did. So I couldn't understand how they could be thinking they were going to get this big increase. They were very, very confident they were.

The short story is they didn't. Pain is the touchstone of a lot of tremendous changes that can happen in life. I firmly believe that. The same is true for organizational pain. The organizational pain became the catalyst for this revolution that I was able to launch. The best way to describe it is when I interviewed, like a lot of utilities that you would walk into today, it was a nice big lobby, big set of stone staircase to go up actually to get to the CEO's office. You had to get through, actually, two private secretaries to get into his office. You got into his office. It was really big. It had a private bathroom. It had a private conference room. The most important thing is he never had to see a customer or a real employee all day long.

Stephen Lacey: He's just glassed in?

Mary Powell: Glassed in. Glassed in. It wasn't just him. It was really pretty much the whole leadership approach and culture. The best way to describe then and now is sort of what does cultural revolution look like? Well, it looked like we had half the people working, because I am actually a firm believer in lean cultures. It's where I started in life and my career. I believe that a lean metabolism is most effective for us as human beings. That is absolutely true in organizations.

I think the biggest mistake in this industry is, I would say, most utilities have at least twice as many human beings as they need. Why is that a problem? It's a problem because, by definition, we all like to go to work and add value. If you have twice as many, we're not necessarily adding value in ways that are customer-obsessed. We're adding value in ways that sometimes add bureaucracy, sometimes add complexity, sometime add, in this business, a ton of unnecessary analysis.

Really, if you stop by to see me today, I work in what I would call a building that looks like it was a revamped service center. We got rid of a separate corporate headquarters. We work in a revamped service center. I work at a standup desk, in what looks like a colorful Costco, so it's high ceiling. I work about this far from where the linemen come in every day in the morning, and where they come in at the end of the day to their docking stations. It is a completely open office environment. There are no private offices. There are no private conference rooms. It is really one where we work really hard on being customer-obsessed, fast, fun and effective.

We could not be doing the work we're doing today in the innovation space for customers if it were not built on the backbone of this cultural revolution.

Stephen Lacey: That was what I was going to ask next. How has that actually impacted the work? Have you come up with new ideas or heard from different people within the company that have sparked new ideas for you or your team? What has been the material impact of those changes?

Mary Powell: I mean, the first material impact of those changes were we were able to take a company that, I have to say, was performing well for the industry. Let's just be clear about that.

Stephen Lacey: A company that was much smaller when you first took it over, right?

Mary Powell: Much smaller. Yes, about a quarter of the size that we are now. Much smaller, but it was performing well. But we went from performing well to a company that, on the basics we're serving customers that have about 93 percent satisfaction in us, about 92 percent trust in the organization. We have some of the best statistics from the, again, bread-and-butter things, like call-center statistics, reliability statistics, how fast we get customers back on.

We're making sure that we're covering all of the bases, and we're doing it again in this very lean operating model that, then to your point, really has created an organization where we also really focused on delayering the organization dramatically.

When I talk about utilities needing to be half the size they are, I'm not talking about the frontline. In fact, in our case, when we acquired the utility that was much larger than us, we didn't achieve any synergies in the frontline. In fact, I added to the frontline. We actually added linemen. We actually added call-center folks. We added people that customers actually care about. We de-layered and subtracted everything possible above them.

Back to the culture of innovation, back to the fact we were the first utility I know of to offer an off-grid package, that came from one of our front-line employees, actually, that was working on a project to rebuild a line to the state park in Vermont. She said, "Well, why are we doing this? Why don't we just tear it down and supply their service off-grid?" We said, "What a brilliant idea." We did it. Then we said, "Well, if we're doing that, why don't we offer off-grid as an option to any customer," because we're really in the mindset of energy as a service and energy transformation.

Stephen Lacey: That was in 2015 when you started partnering with Tesla, right?

Mary Powell: Yes.

Stephen Lacey: How has that gone thus far?

Mary Powell: Really well.

Stephen Lacey: That was the first time a utility had done that, right?

Mary Powell: Yes. Because, again, we do a lot of these things because to us, they're just obvious and intuitive because we're trying to think past how we serve customers today. We try to always actually look at what we do today with a little bit of disdain, not in the context of being unnecessarily harsh on ourselves, but having it in the context of how do we think past what they say they want? How do we think about moving into a future that would delight them by providing things they may not even be thinking about today?

To me, it was the minute I caught word that Tesla was working on this Powerwall thing from a young engineer that I work with. I kind of knew of somebody who worked there. We got in touch. We got involved. It was so obvious to us that we wanted to offer these to our customers to Vermonters.

I'll never forget when I went out to the shindig in LA. I wasn't even going to go, because I thought, "Oh, well, there's going to be hundreds of people partnering on these things."

Stephen Lacey: This is the launch party.

Mary Powell: The launch, yes. They were like, "No. No. No. You really need to be here." I went. It was nice because I got to chat with Elon Musk and have my own time with him and the rest of it. What was actually really stunning was it was then I found out that we were actually the only utility in the country that had gone ahead and partnered with them.

Again, I think it's back to culture, because we have a culture of yes. We have a culture of, "Let's try that." We have a culture of being fast implementers. We're not large enough to have an R&D department. We're not going to be the ones to come up with this next amazing invention in energy technologies, how we see ourselves as customer-obsessed, and we're able to fast implement and deliver innovative products and services.

Stephen Lacey: Did Elon say anything in that conversation that made you want to go ahead with this? Was there anything interesting in that conversation that he told you?

Mary Powell: We have another really big announcement coming up with them on Thursday, actually. I think the most interesting thing was really for me, seeing Vermont as such an incredible opportunity to fulfill the kind of vision that he talks about. That's actually what we talked about. I actually think rural America, it's somebody who came from Manhattan and came from a really densely populated, complex infrastructure environment. I really believe rural America is poised to lead the energy revolution, because we are different, because it is also from a reliability and a resilience perspective. It is really intuitive to say that the bulk system, the Fred Flintstone system that's been around 130 plus years, the twigs and twine system, because that's what it comes down to when those big storms move in and you're in rural America. I don't care how much storm hardening you do, that system, that Fred Flintstone system, is twigs and twine. That's what happened.

For us, it's more resilient. It's more reliable. It's about how do we lead in a completely different energy system delivery. That's what he and I talked about.

Stephen Lacey: First of all, did the economics work out for you as a utility? A lot of utilities would be worried about consumers cutting themselves off from the grid or defecting a lot of load.

Mary Powell: Yes.

Stephen Lacey: It doesn't seem to worry you at all?

Mary Powell: I mean, everybody should be worried. I'm worried all the time.

Stephen Lacey: You're encouraging it?

Mary Powell: I'm naturally paranoid.

Stephen Lacey: Right. You're naturally paranoid.

Mary Powell: I love that book, Only the Paranoid Succeed. I believe in paranoia. Actually, I love it. I embrace it. It's a different lens of how you look at it. I had our team about a year and a half ago. I saw an NREL study that talked about, over the next decade, how many American homes and businesses could be self-supplying. I said, "Let's just do this dramatic scenario. Let's do this dramatic scenario that over the next decade, we lose 40 percent of our traditional revenue. What does that look like in terms of how we can optimize transformation to bring down the amount of revenue we need?" Because a huge part of a utility's revenue is power supply, grid cost, blah, blah, blah, blah. All right. How can we think about using every asset that's coming online in a way to drive down that cost? How can we earn our way into new value propositions, right?

The end of the exercise just showed that there's no freaking silver bullet. There's no obvious, obvious way. In many ways, that's heartening to somebody like me because I actually also believe one of the biggest mistakes we can make is bet too hard on any one specific technology that's available today. I think a huge part of creating a culture that eats strategy is one that's incredibly nimble.

Five years ago or eight years ago, when we were the first utility in the country that was actually providing a tariff to encourage customers to go solar, did we know we'd be partnering with Tesla? No. Do I know today what the partnerships are going to be five years from now? Absolutely not. I can tell you one thing, there's going to be new and exciting partnerships.

That's the kind of framework. Then back to your point about how do the economics work, we work really hard on figuring out how we can earn our way into a new value proposition, because none of this is monopoly provided, right? None of this is, "You have to work with us," right? It's part of being a B Corp, we're about building a lot of economic drivers around us. It is about how can we be in that space so that as we're creating new relationships, we're using those assets to drive down the cost of the grid, and we're using any new revenues that are coming in to help pay for the mothership of taking care of poles and wires, traditional system and the new system.

Stephen Lacey: By driving down the cost of the grid, you're saying that you're deferring infrastructure upgrades, basically? Because the traditional utility argument is that if people use solar and storage to leave the grid or to defect load, the rest of the customers are subsidizing those customers, and they have to pay more for the grid?

Mary Powell: Right. I call that sloppy thinking. I think that is classic thinking that happens in industries. Again, I've had the chance to work in a couple of them like banking, that can very easily get into protect, preserve and defend, instead of how do I try to think past. We have no silver bullets, but we're trying to think past. That's what we do.

Back to your question, I guess, I want to just start with one fact that I think is really important as we think about the future in energy. It's one of the ones back to paranoia that worries me the most not for us, not for Green Mountain Power, actually, for society, which is this, which is the bulk system as we know it today is about 40 to 43 percent economically efficient on a good day. We have, throughout much of the country right now, New England is a great example of this, there are some exceptions to this, but we have huge swaths of the country, a lot of rural America where loads are actually very flat.

There is efficiency happening. There's the ability to use distributed generation. There's innovation going on. One could say even under the best of scenarios, loads stay flat. Some would say, I would argue, I actually think five to 10 years, we're going to see loads decline significantly in parts of the country. You have that, and at the same time, you have an industry that spent the most amount it's ever spent in the entire history of the United States of America. We spent over $10 billion on transmission infrastructure last year.

You have this Dilbert, I think, classic Dilbert of you have the infrastructure cost is continuing to go up, the delivery system, which already on a good day's not that economically efficient, and you don't have inherent increasing load. Again, one of my favorite lines about risk is there is no such thing as the elimination of risk. You're making choices. You're moving risk from one place to another. Every choice you make, you're creating a new risk, or you're moving risk somewhere else.

Our philosophy is, again, we are trying to lead now in actually moving, trying to push tens of millions of dollars of future cost of the grid. I hate to say this -- if there's anybody here from Massachusetts, Connecticut or New Hampshire, or Maine -- but we're actually trying to, through storage, we're going to probably flattening our peak by about a couple hundred megawatts a year and shifting a ton of cost that we have to pay to the regional grid to the rest of the regional grid providers.

We're using individual Tesla Powerwalls to do that. We're using a solar storage project that we did in Rutland, one of its first of its kind to do that.

Stephen Lacey: That's the Stafford Hill project?

Mary Powell: Yes, Stafford Hill. We're aggregating behind the meter resources with grid resources to try to, again, lead in this radical transformation to a community, home and business based system.

Stephen Lacey: If we now have a picture of what success might look like, that's a delighted customer, a customer who feels connected to the utility, lower infrastructure costs, a healthy mix of centralized and distributed resources, people with choice. What does failure look like? Have you modeled out what kind of troubles you might face or ultimately, what a failed strategy would look like?

Mary Powell: I mean, failed strategy is when you're harming the socioeconomic well-being around you versus benefiting it. To me, it's very obvious, it's very clear what success looks like. One of the hard things for us right now is we realize we need a rate adjustment, not huge for this industry, probably about 4 percent. We've already lowered bills three times in the last four years. We've delivered rate decreases through our work, but our vision of the future is how do we never have to raise rates, and how do we provide a completely indifferent low carbon, low-cost, incredibly reliable energy system to the customers we serve.

At the heart of it, customer obsession looks like success is obvious, which is you're not raising rates. You're providing transformation. You're connecting everything you do in the context of stacking benefits for the communities that you serve.

Failure looks like defending status quo, defending large increases. Failure looks like building things that Vermonters don't want. It's very easy to see what failure and success looks like in my mind.

Stephen Lacey: When you go to, let's say, a NARUC conference or something, and you talk to other utility CEOs. Let's say Southern Company's CEO, Tom Fanning, who recently went on television and said that he doesn't believe CO2 is a contributor to climate change. What kind of conversations are you having with folks like that who have embraced the need for change, but I think are fairly conservative, conservative when it comes to culture change, especially compared to what you're espousing here. What kind of conversations are you having with your fellow CEOs in the power industry?

Mary Powell: You know, I don't have that many, really, to tell you the truth. I haven't actually gone to a lot of those things. I've actually been in this space a long time now.

Stephen Lacey: You're in Vermont talking to customers.

Mary Powell: Yes, I'm mostly in Vermont. I mean, that was actually one of the things, to tell you the truth, when I came to this industry what really struck me in a negative way was just how much time and money people spend going to those meetings, and how much comes out of them, right? I was always just trying to balance investment of time versus value.

Honestly, I always felt sort of naturally a little bit like an outcast, which I didn't mind. I mean, I'm in Vermont. Vermont is seen as so different. I know that because I grew up in Manhattan, right? I think how a utility leader from like a major urban area would view me and what we're doing. I know that, because I've been with folks on that other side of the lens. I don't mean that in a way of being concerned about it. I mean it just in a very factual way that it hasn't necessarily been where I've been able to create the greatest partnerships or momentum or ideas from.

That said, I think there's some amazing stuff that goes on in our industry. I do try to go to maybe one thing a year, so that I'm connecting, so I'm hearing because, I think again, we're actually the implementers. One of the lines I love about innovation is good ideas are a dime a dozen. It's actually implementation that's rare. It's implementation and execution.

One of the things I love about going to some of those meetings is hearing some of the cool pet projects that are going on, and then saying, "Oh my gosh, how do we actually take that, but really go mainstream with it? Like actually really use it, so it's not a kind of professional playground, but it's actually meaningful, systemic, customer offerings and change?"

I have been asked to speak at different meetings about what we're doing. I do that. Sometimes, I actually speak at NARUC. It was at a NARUC meeting. I'll never forget it. I talked about all of this. It was actually a regulator from New Jersey who stood up and said, "Let's just remember one thing. Vermont is the size of one small town in New Jersey." Thank you very much.

Stephen Lacey: You do a very good regulator impression, too.

Mary Powell: That's sometimes the response I've gotten, right, which is not interest or, "How can we apply it?" but sort of how do we say it doesn't. That's what I was talking about. We've tried to create this culture of yes. I'm grateful. We actually have had some amazing regulators in the state of Vermont who are, I think, very forward thinking. Because, again, you can't do this work alone. It has to be in combination with all the stakeholders that also care just as deeply as you do about your customers.

Stephen Lacey: I want to open up the floor for some questions very shortly. I do have one more question, though, and that is about interacting with your customers. One of the things that you have, I think, applied from the world of startups is to really listen to your customers, figure out what they want. This Tesla Powerwall project was an example of that. The redesign of your bill is another example of that. What kind of specific conversations are you having with your customers? What kind of questions are you asking them? What have they told you that's made you reevaluate the products or services that you've provided them?

Mary Powell: So great question, because I actually think that's so key to being customer obsessed, and so key to building the kind of culture that I think Vermonters value. Again, the office space that I talked about is really, at the end of the day, about avoiding, I think, the biggest challenge that can happen for people in leadership. It's not necessarily even in my position. It's sort of anybody who's in leadership, which is there's this natural organizational push towards disconnection, disconnection from the frontline, disconnection from customers.

I really go about. I call it strategic block scheduling in my calendar. I block out the entire year. I make sure that every single week, I'm meeting with customers. Every single week, I'm meeting with small groups of folks that work on the GMP team. I'm literally all over the state of Vermont.

Stephen Lacey: I don't think I've ever heard a utility CEO say that.

Mary Powell: Ok.

Stephen Lacey: I mean, it's remarkable.

Mary Powell: I don't know how else you stay in touch with reality. I mean, one of my biggest fears, again, is being out of touch with reality, right, of being out of touch with what people really want and what really matters to people. I love people, actually, so that's a huge part of it, too, it actually also enriches my life and I think makes me better at what I do. I meet with customers every week.

Stephen Lacey: What do they tell you?

Mary Powell: All sorts of things. By the way, I don't just go to like the top 100 customers. Those are important, but I've done collections. I've talked to customers that are having a hard time paying their bill. I go into gas stations and I talk to customers. What they tell me is kind of where, I think, we circled to a couple times, or what you said, what does failure look like. Vermonters, they care about the environment. They love some of the transformation stuff, but you know what, they need our help in keeping costs low.

One of the biggest things they do and one of the sweet spots we've found over and over again in this energy transformation work is we actually think we might be able to do like a really cool storage, solar, a whole little project with a marble quarry to bring energy transformation, to bring them increased reliability, to have a long-term, sustainable approach from a cost perspective.

At the end of the day, they want to feel loved. I think in the end of the day, we don't, in business, or in what we do, or when we think about innovation, we don't talk enough about love and how what we can do can help transform lives and impact society in a good way.

Stephen Lacey: I've heard you use that word a number of times speaking, you use the word love and compassion and care for your customers. That is extraordinarily unique in this space. I mean, I think it's a testament to what you're doing. How do you integrate that, that feeling about the customer into what you do broadly? When you work with your staff, for example, does your staff share those values? How do you pass that along?

Mary Powell: We do these weekly reports to each other. There's about 15 of us every single week, and I write a report. They say it's probably rare to see a week go by that I don't talk about love in my reports. I hit it a lot just because I think, like many things, if you're not thinking about it, it's easy, particularly with the stresses and strains of running a business, et cetera. It's easy to actually get locked actually into the opposite, which is the feeling that you're at war with stakeholders, or whatever.

Stephen Lacey: Or that your customer is a rate payer, and that's it.

Mary Powell: Yes. I can't even stand that. Oh my gosh, or a meter. When did we ever think that was an appropriate way to think about what the core of what we're doing? Because we're in a business that, at the end of the day is like a life-support business. This is one of the most important core businesses in the context of people's lives and their businesses, right?

To me, yes, we talk about it a lot. We talk about it a lot. We also really believe love wins. I don't mean it in like a competitive sense, like you're coming at solving it with hate him, and I'm coming out with love and love's going to win. It wins because it changes us. It wins because it changes my orientation, and it opens up my thinking to solutions. That is a huge part of how we think about innovation.

Stephen Lacey: Let's get some questions. I think we have time for a few good ones. What would you like to know from Mary Powell?

Audience: From a business perspective, how are you four times bigger if you're located in such a small state?

Mary Powell: Great question. Yes, we're four times bigger, we're still tiny. I always like to remind folks of that because, again, we're still, at the end of the day, the second smallest investor-owned utility, I think, in the country, because Vermont, as a whole, is about 620,000 residents. We accomplish that through acquiring Vermont's largest utility. That was where we saw the most significant growth in the context of the customers that we serve.

Then again, that too, I think at the end of the day, the success of that honestly was because of our love of Vermonters and our wanting to contribute from a socioeconomic perspective to the viability of Vermont, which is a very small state and doesn't have that many opportunities to try to drive down cost. One of the commitments I'm so excited about is we committed to achieve $144 million of savings for Vermonters through that. We actually are in path now to have generated about $175 to $280 million of value for Vermonters.

Again, that was in the context we talked about, like loving our customers, loving Vermont. I talked a lot about culture eats strategy, like having these two large utilities doing the exact same thing for 600,000 Vermonters when, really, you just needed the same number of linemen and call center reps. You didn't need all of those that were interfering with them above them. That was the big jump in growth.

Audience: Excellent panel. I really enjoyed it. What's the next big thing you want to do for your company, or have your company, I guess, do for your customers from your perspective? What's your next big accomplishment?

Mary Powell: I feel like what I talked about is pretty big, which is leading the revolution to a home, business and community-based energy system. We're serious about that. We're all in on that. Our peak is about 760 megawatts. Through storage, through distributed generation, through creating these new energy systems, we're hoping to flatten that. We're headed towards flattening that over the next three years to about 600 year-round.

Again, that would be the most dramatic transformation I've heard of in this space. A lot of it is through leveraging storage but a lot of it is also leveraging the fact that because we led back in 2008 with solar and encouraging customers to go solar, we have the highest level of solar penetration of any state in the country except for Hawaii. Yes, it's really this complete transformation of the energy system, which feels pretty big to me.

Stephen Lacey: Let me ask that question in another way, which is what is the biggest technological change that you see happening that will help usher in that change? Is it going to be battery storage? Will it be demand-side management? You don't like that term. Wow. I've never seen anyone like almost throw up by hearing demand-side management.

Mary Powell: It's one of the things that drives me crazy in this un-customer obsessed industry, because to me it's this view that the way to achieve greatness is to shame customers, make customers manage energy more.

I believe in it, but I actually believe it's in our role to innovate past that and to do it in a way where we are the conductor of this symphony of resources so that actually what we do is we give you, as the customer, whether you're a business or a residential customer, we give you freedom, and you feel great, and you just have systems, and you have energy. That's why I gag at that.

Stephen Lacey: I actually really appreciate that, because I don't think I've ever heard a utility executive stand up and say that.

Mary Powell: We need it, but it's sort of like our job. I feel like what the industry has done is try to make it like your job and then we create these carrots and sticks. There's this great Dan Pink video, if you haven't seen it, about upending, which I just firmly believe in. Upending the whole way Americans think about incentive systems, and what they do.

It's this kind of dinosaur age thinking about carrots and sticks. Of course, we have to make the system more efficient. I said it's about 40 percent economically efficient. We have to make it as close to 100 as we can. Yes, a part of that is the principles of demand-side management. It's not how we think about it today, though. It's actually leapfrogging past and providing that for customers.

Stephen Lacey: It might be a little bit too much to bite off toward the end of this conversation, but it does get us into this broader discussion about whether what kind of pricing mechanisms we use to get consumers to meet changing conditions on the grid, not just in terms of reducing demand, but cycling storage, consuming their own solar. There are lots of things that you can get customers to do with the right rate designs or the right signals.

Mary Powell: I just don't come at it from the approach of the minute you say, "Get customers to do," you lose me, right?

Stephen Lacey: Right.

Mary Powell: It's more, how do we innovate past? They might be doing all those things, or hopefully they are, but it's because we're making their lives better, easier, more affordable. We're not getting them to do this.

Stephen Lacey: Yes. I mean, from what I've seen, I think most customers don't really respond as well as people would like to those dynamic rates.

Mary Powell: No, they don't. They do what most of society does, which is there's a period of response, and then it drops off because it's inconvenient. People are busy. It's not the most important thing in their lives.

Stephen Lacey: Yes. It's a really important discussion to be having. Any other questions?

Audience: Hi. Thanks so much for being here today. How do you evaluate risks on these new companies that you want to bring on their new innovative platforms or programs when they're maybe not an Elon Musk and Tesla that's so well-known, and so game changing, when there's this small idea that's coming on, but you think it might have a good platform for your own company?

Mary Powell: We are a culture of yes. Thank you so much for that question, because I forgot to mention one of the things that I'm really so proud of that we did is we actually created in our space where we work, innovator space. If any of the innovators here are interested in free space and resources and data in the energy world and want to come to work with us in Vermont, just let me know, because we want you. We're already working with a bunch of amazing entrepreneurs. Preferably, we also look at it from a socioeconomic perspective. We are interested in attracting folks and entrepreneurs from other states. We've got some from Brooklyn and a lot of different places.

We're basically open for business with just about any innovator, right, that we think we can apply what they're doing to what we're doing. Then that said, obviously, even if it's anywhere from Tesla or Aquion or Sonnenbatterie, you always have to look at it in the context of, "Ok. What could go wrong? What's the worst case possibility of what could go wrong? Then, how do you add another 20 percent on that you don't know about what could go wrong?"

When you're fast implementing, you have to obviously bound it with just sort of this, "We're willing to go this size now." Then, you have your metrics and your hurdles you have to hit. We're a deeply measured company, I should add. We have a company-wide meeting every Monday morning at 7 AM. That's a huge part of our culture. We have about 70 metrics we measure every single week. On Monday morning, we look at those metrics, as a full on company. Again, yes, you have to have bounds. You have to have guardrails.

The other piece in innovation, I know all of you know this, and I've started two businesses of my own in my career, one that my husband still runs, you have to know sunrise, sunset, is really important. You got a sunrise idea's fast. You got to implement them fast. You've got to not be scared to sunset them if dynamics change or your metrics don't show. Don't fall so in love with your idea that you just keep going when you know you shouldn't.

Stephen Lacey: Have there been any examples where you've had to let go of an idea that you can think of?

Mary Powell: Big examples? No. All the time, though, I feel like. Do you know what I mean?

Stephen Lacey: Or you're kind of throwing ideas around the meeting?

Mary Powell: Right. Throwing ideas, or we start down something, and we stop. Nothing really huge comes to mind, but I feel like I know it's happened sometimes, right, where you think something seems like such a good idea then you have to just sunset it or not.

Sometimes, we get back to demand-side management, this sort of working on these rates and the idea that customers are all going to use something so that they can manage it more themselves to save five bucks a month.

Stephen Lacey: I'm never going to be able to say demand-side management now.

Mary Powell: Sorry.

Stephen Lacey: Any other questions?

Audience: First of all, thanks for that great panel. I had a simple question. What would you suggest to jurisdictions and utilities outside of Vermont to really evolve and move a little bit, maybe, towards your direction, or towards a more customer-centric direction?

Mary Powell: Again, back to your broader question about the community. I don't mean to be dismissive of what others are doing in other states because the United States is very different in different parts of the United States. It's very important to understand what your customers want.

We are deliberate. We are customer-obsessed. That is the touchstone of all of it. We are delivering on what Vermonters want. We poll them constantly. We survey them constantly. We're always making sure that we're aligned with them. The starting point wherever you are is tap into not just like what they think about you. Kind of, who cares what they think about you? I mean, you do care, but it's kind of what do they care about? What are their values? How do you kind of lean into that and move forward?

One of the biggest things I felt like I brought Green Mountain Power when I first came and led that cultural revolution was I had actually worked in government for a few years in Vermont. I brought this cultural revolution and how we thought about the regulators. It was all lawyers talked to lawyers. It was big and scary. Everybody built walls. There are actually people who care about customers just as much as we do, if not more back then, in terms of how Green Mountain Power was.

It's really about, again, how do you love your regulators? How do you build real and meaningful relationships and connections, but all around what customers want? Because at the day if you're delivering in any business model I believe in love because it feels so much better as a way of doing business, but I also believe in it because I believe it spawns success. Because if you go about it that way, you create this virtuous circle where then your customers love you. Then, that informs others who are important stakeholders to your business. I would say my biggest advice is love, love, love, and get customer-obsessed.

Stephen Lacey: I would like to hear a little bit more advice for some of the startups in this room, maybe those who are working in the electric power sector. Are there any ideas that come across your desk, or the desks of your staff that are particularly appealing in the way that they're structured or particularly appalling in the way that they're pitched?

Mary Powell: Simplification. I think one of the mistakes I see in this space with entrepreneurs and with some of the innovators we've partnered with, it was a big a-ha for me when I realized, guess what, this industry's not as complicated as they like to make themselves sound.

Stephen Lacey: Don't tell them that, because we'll be out of jobs.

Mary Powell: It's not that complicated. One of the mistakes I see with entrepreneurs is they feel like they get lost in that jargon and complexity. I really believe the beauty in innovation and creativity is simplicity. Messaging is simplicity, and back to, again, customer-obsession, incredible value proposition that you're going to hit. That would be my advice.

Stephen Lacey: Do you have any interesting RFPs coming up or programs that you're putting together that we should know about?

Mary Powell: I don't remember the last time we did an RFP. That's not really us. I mean, again, we're doing some really interesting stuff, as I mentioned. Watch the news on Thursday, there'll be some. Elon will probably be tweeting, but there'll be some news of new and innovative work we're going to be doing with them.

We're doing that kind of work, and we're working with backyard organizations like this company called Packetized Energy out of UVM in Vermont. We're playing in a lot of different spaces, doing a lot of different things.

Stephen Lacey: There's a lot more room for experimentation with the Green Mountain Power versus many of the other IOUs operating around the country.

Mary Powell: Absolutely, yes.

Stephen Lacey: You just said that the business was not as complicated as people make it sound. My first question after that was using RFP and IOU. I would like to get one more question in before we wrap it up. Yes.

Audience: Mary, it's so inspiring to see a female CEO in this space. I love your story. It's very untraditional, too, that you start out as an artist and then worked in banking and government before you came to lead Green Mountain Power. I just wonder if you could give any advice to some of the young people here who are starting their careers out. Why should they work in energy? Why should they be hopeful maybe when they're seeing some of the discouraging activity at the Federal level? Give a little inspiration to folks that are starting on this path in the beginning of their career.

Mary Powell: I think you heard me say I think this industry is seeing a revolution in how we think about energy delivery. Again, I was so excited at lunch to hear about the work being done in Africa around, again, approaching with off-grid.

I think if you care about the environment, if you care about sustainability, if you care about the economy, there is probably no more exciting place to be than somewhere in this space. We talk a lot about glass ceilings. Honestly, I think one of the biggest challenges in this industry is we have a freaking gray ceiling. We need youth.

One of the things I'm most excited about with the team is like, not on purpose, but it is 50-50 women and men in my team, but it's also I think the average age of the leadership team is somewhere in the 30's now. Again, I think there is a lot of opportunity. I would just really strongly encourage folks definitely to dive in and be the change you want to see.

I feel like a huge part of my ability to achieve things was, again, also not getting too attached to your success, actually getting attached to seeing success. Because people ask me a lot about, "Well, how did you have the courage to do this, that, or the other thing?" I think really on some level, it's because I didn't come from anything in life. I knew I would feed myself. I've always had that, because I was feeding myself at an early age. I always had that confidence that I would do that.

It's about getting attached to the success and the change that you want to see, and not getting so wrapped up in yourself. I think that's the other advice I would give is if you care about sustainability, if you care about energy, if you care about the economy, it's a great space to be in. We need you. We need new ideas. Just get obsessed with what you want to see accomplished, not with what you want to accomplish for yourself.

Stephen Lacey: I think that's a really appropriate and inspiring way to end the conversation. Mary Powell is the president and CEO of Green Mountain Power. Thank you so much.

Mary Powell: Thank you. It's good to be here.

Stephen Lacey: Thanks again to Mary Powell for the thought-provoking conversation and to the Clean Energy Trust for inviting us. If you're a startup or investor tackling the big environmental issues of your time, you can find out more about that organization at cleanenergytrust.org.

One last request, if you are enjoying The Interchange, please recommend us on social media, or send a link to your friends and colleagues, or give us a rating and review on iTunes. It's so important for helping us spread the word. Thanks so much. I'm Stephen Lacey for The Interchange. We are a production of greentechmedia.com. We will catch you next time.