PG&E CEO is a Recovered Climate Denier, and Serious about Warming

July 5, 2021

If you’re looking for ground zero for climate impacts this summer, California is as good as anyplace to start.
PG&E is the giant utility in the spotlight, pushing to deploy renewable energy, shut down fossil fueled units, while holding off record heat and fires that infrastructure was not built to withstand.

Into this frying pan, a new executive has got more than a full plate of challenges. If you’ve followed my videos, of course, it’s someone you already know because we are always on the cutting edge. Patti Poppe was formerly Chair of Consumers Energy in Michigan, the nation’s 10th largest utility – where she transitioned over a few years from having an “I heart coal” bumper sticker on her car to a standout leader for clean power.
Video above explains the rationale that is now guidance for big utilities across the Heartland.

Bloomberg:

PG&E Corp.’s new chief executive officer, Patricia Poppe, once doubted the reality of climate change. Now, it may shape her fate.

The state her electric utility serves, California, is growing hotter and drier, and it frequently catches on fire. Too often, PG&E’s power lines have provided the spark. Years of deadly blazes triggered by the company’s equipment leveled neighborhoods from Napa Valley to the Sierra Nevada foothills and finally drove PG&E into bankruptcy in 2019. To get back out, PG&E had to pay $25.5 billion in lawsuit settlements—and sell its historic San Francisco headquarters to raise cash.

Now California’s fire season has arrived early. PG&E has spent the last three years trying to harden its system, installing insulated wires and stronger poles, and shutting off power lines altogether when fire danger grows high. Poppe, who joined PG&E in January, knows that she will be judged on how well she and the utility to responds to fires and other climate-related disasters.

“We can’t lament the conditions—we just need to stay about the business of getting ready,” said Poppe, in an interview. “I feel, actually, really good about it.”

Poppe, 53, took an odd route to PG&E. She spent 15 years with General Motors, making cars that ran on fossil fuels, before stints at two Michigan utilities with coal-fired power plants. Hiring some of former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm’s assistants helped convince her to become, as she said, a “recovered climate denier.” She closed seven coal plants by the time she resigned as the chief executive officer at CMS Energy to join PG&E.

“I’ve become a bit of a zealot in my conversion,” Poppe said.

In PG&E, she said she found an organization that had become expert at responding to disasters but needed to do better at preventing them. Some of PG&E’s fire-prevention steps have strained relationships with its customers, particularly its “public safety power shutoffs” – intentional blackouts to stop powerlines from sparking flames. One of her predecessors, former chief executive Bill Johnson, alarmed and dismayed Californians by saying PSPS events would likely be needed for the next 10 years, as PG&E fire-proofed its grid.

They may have to become a permanent part of PG&E’s toolkit, Poppe said. “When you look at drought conditions, even with a hardened system, will we need to exercise this very counterintuitive method? Maybe.”

She wants to make them less intrusive. The company has installed about 980 “sectionalizing” devices that can isolate portions of the grid, shrinking the size of blackouts. PG&E also is installing microgrids to power communities that otherwise might lose electricity in a PSPS event.

“My goal is to make PSPS invisible,” Poppe said. In the long term, she hopes technologies like batteries and electric cars will step in to provide power to consumers when the utility deploys shutoffs.

California last year also suffered rolling blackouts, when electricity demand nearly outstripped supply during a punishing heatwave. Poppe said the company has been signing up extra power supplies, has new grid-scale batteries that can supply power in an emergency, and has been holding back use of its hydropower dams so that they’ll still have water in their reservoirs when the hottest months arrive.

“We have a bigger cushion than we had last year,” she said. “I would just suggest that conditions change all the time, and as we’re observing climate change, we’re preparing for worse conditions than in the past… The system just has to continue to evolve and be more resilient.”

Poppe also shows up in this vid profiling the collapse of fossil fuels during the pandemic year.

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