By Peter Kelly-Detwiler - TREIA Storyteller in Residence
Sometimes a LinkedIn profile tells far less than half the story about a person’s career. That is certainly the case with Austin Energy’s Chief Operating Officer, Charles Dickinson. LinkedIn can summarize the positions a person has held – and in the electric utility industry, Dickerson has pretty much done it all. But LinkedIn can not adequately describe the how, or the why.
In a recent interview for TREIA, Dickerson described the arc of his rich career, some of what he has learned, and what he sees coming next for an industry in the middle of a dramatic transition.
From the outset, an unrelenting focus on the customer
Dickerson grew up in Maryland, and both his mother and father worked full-time to provide for their family. They were, “middle, middle income,” he recalled, so Dickerson worked his way through college as the student manager for the University of Maryland’s Dining Services group. His outfit was responsible for serving the general public at formal events, such as wedding services and awards banquets, - events where failures would be both highly visible and distressing to the customer. In that assignment, he owned the outcome, and did all the hiring and firing. Dickerson commented “I like to say my professional career started in college…I got a healthy dose of a service mindset from my experiences serving those customers.”
After graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1989, he took a job in power plant construction with the Potomac Electric Power Company (Pepco). In every job over the course of nearly two decades in his career, he has always asked himself who cares about the outcome, in other words, “who is the customer?” It’s a question that has served him well as the role of the customer continues to evolve during this industry’s transition.
Dickerson was promoted to power plant engineer, and then to plant operator, working 12-hour shifts. When the opportunity arose, he migrated to call center manager, and after that he worked in HR. His goal was to gain experience in multiple parts of the organization, and to experience different perspectives that would help him become a better professional.
Dickerson then had an opportunity to serve as the senior leader (and executive) managing the gas business for Pepco Holdings. He moved on from that position to serve as the company’s Vice President of Strategic and Chief Risk Officer performing some merger and acquisition work before becoming a customer care executive. He then became responsible for Pepco’s performance management organization, and also served as a major witness in the Exelon and Pepco Holdings merger case, before he was hired away by National Grid.
At Grid, Dickerson was head of business services organization before joining Austin Energy to take over the COO role. In his varied career to date he’s pretty much seen it all, “I like to say that I’ve worked in or led every area of the utility except legal, but I have seen ten episodes of Law and Order.” Thus, he’s uniquely suited for his current role.
Settling in at Austin Energy
Dickerson just started his new job in August, and it’s a big one. He’s responsible for well over half of the 1,700 utility employees. That includes everybody related to infrastructure: all of the personnel who design, build, operate and maintain the electrical equipment, as well as the employees responsible for operating and maintaining the utility’s remaining power plants.
Austin Energy buys all of its power on the wholesale market, and the employees responsible for origination, purchasing, and position management of those power purchases report to Dickerson as well. So too do the professionals running the city’s chilled water loop that provides cooling services to many customers. The CIO and CTO also report up through his organization. In other words, anything that has to do with the physical operations, power procurement, or IT falls under Dickerson’s purview.
The immediate task in front of him, Dickerson indicated, is simply getting to know the people and understanding the culture, “I’m a big fan of understanding the why people do what they do.” There’s also the challenge of getting acclimated to working in the public space. Dickerson commented, I’ve been in the investment-owned utility space for a large part of my carrier. In a municipal utility, there are different rules of engagement, a different purchasing process, and compensation.” So Dickerson is focused on getting acclimated and up to speed, finding out how to operate in this new construct, where the citizens - not the shareholders - are the owners.
There’s great value in being a city department, he observed, but “while it’s good that the utility is part of city you cannot run it the same way as Parks and Recreation and the library… not only do you need infrastructure, but you need a relationship with the market (ERCOT) working correctly so you can get electricity from the market and provide to customers…That’s the nuance and balancing between having a healthy respect for city government and educating people that running a utility and running a city cannot be done in the same fashion. One is no better or worse, but they are different.”
Where do Austin Energy and the utility industry go from here?
In our conversation, Dickerson referred to Austin Energy’s Integrated Resource Plan to 2027, which contemplates a continued push for affordable renewables, with a goal of 65% by 2027. The Plan also includes implementing 200 MW of local solar by 2025. He noted, “It’s a pretty aggressive but achievable target…it has challenges, the salient one of which is how we design, maintain and operate a grid that was designed for one-way flow.”
Dickerson predicted that although we have already seen a good deal of positive change, this transformation to something new and different in the industry is just getting started, driven in large part by the emergence of energy storage. In short, he said, we are about to witness “a significant paradigm shift. The major change is going to come with the success of renewable energy and storage and a shift unlike anybody is truly expecting.” He forecasted that the shift could be as profound as that which has affected the communications industry, “Once storage gets to the point where you can store more energy in a smaller footprint cost-effectively, and you couple that with renewable resources, it’s going to fundamentally change the economics of the utility space.”
He predicted that, “it won’t make the utility obsolete, but it will be obsolete in its current form. Does all T&D infrastructure go away? Certainly not, but the business model will have to change.”
The GridNEXT keynote
Dickerson is looking forward to keynoting at GridNEXT in October, and offered a limited sneak preview, “I want to lay out for the audience what Austin Energy has done in terms of its renewable growth.” He will outline some of the next steps for the industry to move things forward, and highlight some of the different challenges for investor-owned utilities and for public power companies. Dickerson summed it up, “municipal utilities are not insulated from those challenges. As we continue to proliferate and grow, utilities are going to have to think about doing things differently.”
TREIA is indeed fortunate to have a professional who has just about seen every aspect of the utility industry volunteer offer his insights at GridNEXT. Come and join us for the conversation.