A Conversation With CPS Energy’s CEO: Paula Gold-Williams

By Peter Kelly-Detwiler - Storyteller in Residence

By Peter Kelly-Detwiler - Storyteller in Residence

A Conversation With CPS Energy’s CEO: Paula Gold-Williams

TREIA’s GridNEXT event is already right around the corner, and this year we are fortunate to have CPS Energy’s President & CEO Paula Gold-Williams keynoting the event. Gold-Williams has served at CPS Energy for over 14 years in various capacities, and has been President & CEO since November 2015.  

CPS Energy is the country’s largest municipal utility, serving more than 840,000 electric customers and 350,000 gas customers.

Addressing The Velocity Of Change

Over the past century and a half, the gas and electric industries have seen evolution, but nothing compared to the rate of change occurring today, especially in the power sector.  Keeping ahead of these dynamics keeps Gold-Williams on the move. She nonetheless took a half hour out of her very busy schedule to provide some insights into the opportunities and challenges of leading a utility during these tumultuous times.

Gold-Williams observes that she and her colleagues are working hard to position CPS Energy to ride that wave of change.  This involves a good deal of introspection, especially about what the company can do differently. ”Our premise,” she says, “is we have to be a lot more open to ideation, and to think about risk and exposure.”  The days of deploying capital in large assets are over. To make such an investment today, she asserts, “would be irresponsible. Our community expects us to think about those things before we make investments.”

In a rapidly emerging landscape of ‘smart’ distributed and connected devices, the utility requires a different mindset.  Gold-Williams believes that today’s public utility has to think more about how to partner, to leverage opportunities, and even to think more about the local economic development implications.  Leadership must be more flexible in its approach, have a vision, and be able to clearly articulate it.

The conversations quickly get complicated, Gold-Williams observes, “Because there are people who say ‘don’t change our formula that’s been successful for 159 years.’  At the same time, other people think renewables can save the day and they are frustrated we haven’t made everything a solar solution.” A big part of that challenge is that people are very emotionally tied to what they are familiar with.  “They think the future is based on what they know today.”

The Flexible Path

By contrast, Gold-Williams and her team anticipate a future populated by rapidly evolving technologies and business models.  In response, CPS Energy has developed a ‘Flexible Path’ approach, where the goals are clear, but the ways of getting there are adaptable.

The Flexible Path reflects the fact that the prudent course in the face of rapid change is to evolve with those changes over time.  “You let the normal course of economics work,” Gold-Williams comments, such as waiting for costs of solar and battery installations to fall. “You have to take steps that get you closer to the end, but it won’t be a straight line.”

The Flexible Path approach involves numerous customer-focused initiatives, with the solar program serving as a good example.  Today, CPS Energy hosts about 100 megawatts of distributed solar. However, not every customer can invest in rooftop solar. Some may not have a strong enough roof, or they may live in an apartment.  In response to these various situations, CPS Energy offers multiple programs, including a successful community solar program (where Phase One sold out very quickly and the utility is in the process of expanding to a Phase Two).

Rooftop solar panels are just one of many distributed assets.  An entire ecosystem is rapidly emerging that will include such devices as electric vehicles and chargers, smart thermostats, and eventually batteries.  Gold-Williams expects that this customer side of the equation will drive natural and quick penetration of distributed assets. “We totally support that, and we have an evolving smart cities program planning for the ability to optimize and connect.”  

However, with enormous populations of connected devices, she cautions, “we have to think about security… and to think about what could be jeopardized.”  Some systems must be partitioned off from others. There must be a sophisticated view of the structure and multiple levels of defense, while at the same time, the utility has to make it “seamless for customers to get what they want,” including information from customer-facing apps.

Gold-Williams emphasizes that while CPS Energy is not a technology company - its job remains to “provide power, reliability and resilience” - there is an opportunity to partner with technology companies and create a better customer experience.

Talent Becomes Increasingly Critical

A successful transition requires talent.  This implies both re-training existing employees and hiring new ones.  In recognition of the need for evolving skill sets, the company has increased its emphasis on training that includes technical competence, but also more experience on the tactical side. For example, Gold-Williams notes, “Drones are changing how people work, giving us better visibility, analysis, and better safety.  In some cases linemen no longer have to go up in the bucket truck. They can send up a drone, maybe even remotely.”

Training and education also focuses on the qualitative side, to get employees to build talent and break down silos, since many of the new challenges and opportunities require multifaceted approaches that cannot be addressed by a single department.  Some of this training involves team-switching, so that employees acquire different perspectives.

CPS Energy has also adopted a long view for talent recruitment, going so far as to engage students in local schools.  “We work with young kids, and talk about renewables to kindergartners and first graders. We’re getting to them early and they are seeing how exciting this industry is. That’s the vehicle to get more people into our company 20 years from now.”

The Value Of TREIA

The same type of intellectual stimulation that flows between employees on various teams, and between utility employees and students is what attracts CPS Energy to TREIA.  Gold-Williams comments, “We’ve found that an organization like TREIA is bold and gets the conversation going about what’s new, what should we be thinking about and where should we be headed.  It creates the right network of people in the room to expand the conversation. When you are a utility, you can get caught up in the 24/7 need to operate and see just what’s in front of you. To be connected to an association like TREIA helps put provocative and interesting subjects in front of us.”