View recent news coverage highlighting interviews and quotes from LPPC.
COVID-19 | S&P Global: Municipal Utilities Call For Return Of Financial Tools To Get Through Pandemic
May 5, 2020
By Bridget Reed Morawski
Groups that represent public power providers are not waiting for nonpayment data to advocate for various financial tools — such as advance refunding on municipal bonds — they say would unlock much-needed liquidity throughout the COVID-19 crisis.
The extent of service nonpayments likely will not be known until early May, following the end of the first full billing cycle since the pandemic began and most states instituted stay-at-home orders, said Desmarie Waterhouse, vice president of government relations and counsel at the American Public Power Association, or APPA, in a recent interview.
While acknowledging that she had not yet seen information from "a statistically significant number of [APPA] members," Waterhouse said she "would be surprised if, once we see the better data, it won't confirm what [the public power sector is] thinking, which is there is definitely an increase in nonpayments."
Anecdotally, Waterhouse said officials at two utilities in the South separately have told her their bill nonpayment rates are 450% and 150% above normal.
Moody's recently affirmed a stable outlook for the U.S. public power sector, noting that those utilities should be "relatively resilient" despite the coronavirus-instigated economic downturn. However, it did note that those power providers likely will face pressures on liquidity and coverage ratios in 2020 and 2021.
As non-profit entities, public power providers do not hold on to a lot of cash. Certain requirements tied to their bond covenants or factors related to their fuel supply risk are used to define what is tucked away for a financial cushion, according to John Di Stasio, president of the Large Public Power Council, or LPPC.
So few public power organizations have large rainy day funds beyond that. And right now, according to Di Stasio, utilities are making "extraordinary expenditures" and incurring increased operational costs to sequester employees and follow shelter-in-place mandates in the face of reduced loads and revenues.
"Then you add in non-payment of bills … there are certain pressures on the finances, but this is going to be a question of, how long will we be in the circumstances that we are in currently?" Di Stasio said.
How public power providers say they could build extra liquidity
One way for the federal government to help public power providers build liquidity right now would be to reinstate advance refunding on municipal bonds, both Di Stasio and Waterhouse said. Advance refunding essentially is the act of paying off older bonds with newer bonds that have better financial terms, such as lower borrowing costs. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 disallowed tax-exempt advance refunding on municipal bonds.
"As we raise our capital in the municipal markets, the loss of advance refunding basically limits our ability to refinance our outstanding debt when times are favorable to do that," Di Stasio said. "That is generating a significant amount of cash for our members as they watch the market and refinance when it makes sense."
APPA and LPPC representatives also said their organizations' members would like to see the end of mandatory sequestration of Build America Bonds.
The Build America Bonds program was created by the U.S. Department of the Treasury in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis to provide a deeper federal subsidy to state and local governments than traditional municipal bonds. The Treasury made direct payments to the state or local government issuer equaling 35% of the interest payment on the bonds.
But municipal utilities have not been able to issue those bonds since the program expired at the end of 2010, and the federal government since has mandated sequestration of already issued-bond subsidies. Public utilities that issued the bonds with the understanding that a subsidy would be provided have been left holding the bag, LPPC and APPA argue.
The APPA also wants to see the small issuer exception — a legal carve out that the organization says allows banks to deduct the carrying cost for tax-exempt bonds — raised from $10 million to $30 million. Waterhouse said that would help "smaller utilities … that may not need to go out and issue bonds for projects, so they can go maybe to a local bank to get funding."
Creative tools to carry on
In the meantime, public utilities are looking to trim the fat wherever possible or practicable. Most are promoting energy efficiency and energy savings programs to minimize final bills, and Di Stasio said that all of LPPC's member companies have "active programs" in place.
"If we can help our customers and consumers invest in energy efficiency, that's going to also lower their bill and enhance their ability to ultimately pay their bill," said Di Stasio. "That's another big way to help Main Street and to help economic recovery."
But in Texas, public power provider City Public Service of San Antonio, or CPS Energy, is unlocking liquidity by suspending an employee performance incentive program for certain workers, including executives. That program was set to pay out roughly $13 million in May, according to a company news release. Most hiring outside of critical roles at the multi-utility also will be frozen for now.
CPS Energy President and CEO Paula Gold-Williams acknowledged the "increased challenges" stemming from the health crisis that led to the suspension of future program payments and said, "suspending the incentive of almost $13 million is a prudent action in this extraordinary time."
COVID-19 | Tulsa World: Utility Workers—A New, Unsung Hero Emerges During Times of Crisis
April 12, 2020
By Dan Sullivan
During the difficult time we are currently facing, our societal “norms” are challenged. In a recent interview, a pundit expressed his belief the changes we are making today may become the “new norm” of the future. Working from home and changing our social patterns will likely become the new way we interact once this crisis has diminished.
Another change likely to emerge is who society typically labels a “hero.”
My definition of a hero is an ordinary person willing to do something extraordinary to have a positive impact on others. We have always thought of our first responders and military personnel as heroes because they charge toward the threat rather than retreat.
In the crisis today, the hero label certainly extends to the thousands of health care workers waging this war in our hospitals. Each one knowingly is subjected to harm and, yet, returns day after day to face the challenge.
Today, as we sit in our homes in some form of social isolation, we must consider another unsung hero during this crisis — utility workers.
Each time we turn on a water tap or flip a light switch, we automatically expect it to work. Now, possibly more than ever in our nation’s history, a simple resource we take for granted every day is a vital lifeline, whether it’s running water to wash hands or ensuring citizens remain connected to work and critical news or, most importantly, ensuring the power supply for hospitals and clinics is not disrupted.
As we move into our season of severe weather, planning and preparing for all scenarios means we also must be ready with a healthy team of workers to respond. The majority of typical workforces are able to remain in the safety of their homes, but a portion of our employees must report to work, in person, to maintain our utility services. At the time of this writing, plans are being finalized to retain many critical positions sequestered at his or her work stations for days at a time.
A great deal of personal sacrifice from electricians and line workers is required. These heroes will spend days and weeks away from their own families to protect our critical infrastructure and ensure essential, life-saving resources are available.
These are uncharted waters and require extraordinary steps to keep the lights on. The capable men and women being called upon to take extraordinary steps are prepared and ready to do so. Each and every worker recognizes the value of the service they provide to citizens in our communities.
Today, when you flip the electric switch or turn on the water tap, please keep these families in your thoughts and prayers as they encounter the stress of being away from loved ones during these difficult times. In the future, when you see a utility worker, take the time to say thank you and share your appreciation of these unsung heroes.
Dan Sullivan is president and CEO of the Grand River Dam Authority.
Story Partners: LPPC Calls for Federal Action On Infrastructure, Grid Modernization & Carbon Reduction
October 17, 2019
By John Di Stasio
At the Large Public Power Council (LPPC), our members are consumer-driven utilities, committed to reliability, affordability, environmental stewardship and economic development. Their commitment to their customers, communities and the environment has seen our members take proactive steps to improve air quality, reduce carbon emissions and shift towards a cleaner energy future.
Every day, our members are innovating and adopting new technologies and practices to decrease their carbon footprint. From Seattle City Light offering customers 91 percent carbon-free electricity to Orlando Utility Commission spearheading Florida’s largest solar project, public power is at the forefront of addressing threats from a changing climate.
LPPC is proud of the leadership taken by our member companies, however, we also recognize that climate action needs a comprehensive solution. In September, LPPC ratified new policy principles that call for federal action on carbon reduction provided there is flexibility, consistency and recognition of regional differences. Our 27 members, the largest public power systems in the nation, collectively support this call to action.
We support an economy-wide and performance-based approach that allows utilities to build clean portfolios from a broad range of supply resources that best support their communities. LPPC urges Congress to support the commercialization of new emission-reducing technologies and provide public power communities with financing tools to invest in system modernization. This will ensure that as we go greener, we remain resilient and reliable.
LPPC members have a rich tradition of embracing challenges to better their communities, and climate change is no different. While we await a consistent federal approach, LPPC members will continue their efforts to shrink their carbon footprint and create a healthier environment for their customers.
–John Di Stasio, President, LPPC
LPPC represents 27 of the largest locally governed and operated not-for-profit electric systems in the United States. Our member utilities are located in 21 states and Puerto Rico, and own and operate more than 71,000 megawatts of generation capacity and more than 30,000 circuit miles of high voltage transmission lines. LPPC member utilities supply electricity to some of the largest cities in the country including Los Angeles, Seattle, Omaha, Phoenix, Sacramento, Jacksonville, San Antonio, Orlando and Austin.
August 29, 2019
By Aaron Larson
The power grid is changing across the U.S. More distributed energy resources are being added every day. That brings challenges for power utilities, but also opportunities.
John Di Stasio, president of the Large Public Power Council (LPPC), which represents 27 of the largest locally governed and operated not-for-profit electric systems in the U.S., was a guest on The POWER Podcast and discussed how the changes are affecting his organization’s members.
As large infrastructure developers and asset owners, the LPPC’s members are uniquely affected by certain policies in Washington, D.C. Di Stasio, who previously served as general manager and CEO of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) from June 2008 through April 2014, said his group has been focused on tax, infrastructure, cybersecurity, environmental regulation, electrification, and grid modernization initiatives.
Di Stasio noted that the U.S. power grid was originally designed as a central station system with one-way power flow from generators to consumers. “Now, we’re looking at much more distributed generation potentially, and also the fact that two-way power flow provides some additional opportunities and capabilities for consumers, also some additional complexity,” Di Stasio said. He suggested the benefits of digitization should be taken advantage of, which could allow a communications or digital network to be incorporated on top of the grid’s physical network to allow more interoperability. “I think a lot of that’s already underway,” he said.
However, “it’s very hard to do something like that on a top-down basis given the fact that the grid is designed and operated differently all over the United States,” Di Stasio said. “My argument would be you should start with the building block of local distribution grids and actually build from the ground up rather than the top down in order to modernize the grid in the most effective and kind of no-regrets fashion, if you will.”
Di Stasio noted that distributed generation is becoming more prominent not only in states like California and New York, where there have been strong policy pushes to develop distributed resources, but also throughout other regions of the U.S. “The economics warrant that these kind of investments get made all over the country, and I’m seeing that as a significant change than maybe just a decade ago,” he said.
Concerning cybersecurity, Di Stasio said, “We need good practices. We need good principles. We also need flexibility and we need significant coordination.” He noted that with more interoperability and more devices on the grid, more surfaces for entry exist, but he suggested advances have been made to protect industrial control systems, and a lot of “best practice sharing” is taking place across industry sectors.
Hear the entire interview on The POWER Podcast.
July 24, 2019
John Di Stasio is president of the Large Public Power Council. He represents the larger municipal electric utilities in advising lawmakers and government officials in Washington, DC, on how laws and regulations can best support the goals his members share with the general public, namely foregoing command and control regulatory models in favor of allowing the ingenuity of the utilities to flourish in creating desired outcomes. His 35-year career in the electric industry included being CEO of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, or SMUD, including multiple years the utility was implementing smart grid.
July 22, 2019
By Sue Kelly and John Di Stasio
The power grid is changing across the U.S. More distributed energy resources are being added every day. That brings challenges for power utilities, but also opportunities.
The scope of tax policy in the U.S. is huge, touching every aspect of our economy. It is not surprising, then, that tax policy is also huge in Washington. In fact, tax is the single most lobbied issued on Capitol Hill, according to OpenSecrets.org.
The utility sector is just a small part of that world; electric utilities are a smaller part still. While public power plays a significant role in the electric utility sector, it can be challenging to be heard in the maelstrom of tax policy debates.
However, public power has several advantages in this environment. We have utility leaders and locally elected officials who are passionate about public power and who routinely work with their congressional delegations. Likewise, there is a broad array of national associations representing state and local governments with whom we work both individually and collectively (including through such coalitions as the Public Finance Network and the Municipal Bonds for America Coalition).
We are strongest when we speak with a unified voice in support of public power. Doing so reinforces our message and allows us to collectively bring our unique strengths to bear. The American Public Power Association represents the interests of nearly 2,000 public power utilities operating throughout the U.S. These utilities operate in the states of 98 out of 100 senators and in the congressional districts of 335 out of 435 representatives. The Large Public Power Council comprises 27 of the largest community-owned utilities in the U.S., all of which are Association members. LPPC members operate in some of the nation’s largest cities and provide reliable, low-cost power to more than 30 million people — more than 10% of the U.S. population.
Our collective strength is not just political. Together, we also bring a wealth of experience and technical expertise. Our combined tax policy teams have decades of experience on Capitol Hill and working with the Treasury Department and Internal Revenue Service.
This teamwork has resulted in proven successes. In 2012, when the attention of the state and local community was largely focused elsewhere, there were growing signs of a desire to tax municipal bonds as part of a “grand bargain.” The Association and LPPC worked to raise awareness of the threat and to educate lawmakers on the costs such an unprecedented tax would have imposed. Eventually, PFN and the Municipal Bonds for America Coalition would take up the charge, but public power’s work was — and remains — foundational in the defense.
In the wake of tax reform in 2017, the Association and LPPC have again joined forces to develop a legislative and regulatory bond “modernization” agenda. This agenda includes reinstatement of advance refunding bonds, repeal of private use rules that punitively single out public power, prevention of further sequestration of payments to issuers of Build America Bonds and New Clean Renewable Energy Bonds, and an increase in the small issuer exception from $10 million to $30 million. While this last item is likely not of much use to LPPC member utilities, it is important to smaller public power utilities as well as many other municipal issuers. By working together, we have seen the PFN take up this bond modernization agenda, substantially increasing the likelihood that some or all of it will eventually be adopted.
Likewise, together we have pushed lawmakers to provide public power with comparable treatment for energy-related tax incentives. As a result, we’ve already seen enactment of legislation allowing public power utilities to transfer the advanced nuclear tax credit to project partners. Plus, additional measures introduced in the 116th Congress would expand transferability to other energy-related tax credits or allow the issuance of special purpose municipal bonds for clean energy investments.
The Association and LPPC are also working together to seek relief from regulations that make it increasingly difficult for public power utilities to negotiate customized contracts for large commercial customers. This issue most directly affects larger public power utilities, but, again, by raising our collective voices with Treasury and the IRS, we believe our chances for relief are better.
The saying goes, “If you want to go fast, go alone — if you want to go far, go together.” By going together on tax policy, we hope all public power utilities will benefit from our work.
June 26, 2019
By Rod Kuckro, E&E News Reporter
Executives from five of the nation's largest public power utilities agreed yesterday that EPA's Affordable Clean Energy, or ACE, rule has no bearing on the plans they have to reduce carbon dioxide footprints in response to either state direction or consumer demands.
"I don't spend a lot of time worrying about the ACE rule to be honest with you," Pat Pope, CEO of the Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD) and chairman of the Large Public Power Council (LPPC), said at a media roundtable yesterday in Washington, D.C.
The LPPC comprises the 27 largest not-for-profit public power utilities. They operate in 21 states and Puerto Rico, providing electricity to more than 30 million customers.
The LPPC board met this week and hosted a meeting with the press featuring CEOs and general managers to discuss their issues.
The LPPC utilities see their role vis-a-vis the ACE rule as "trying to be a resource to the federal government" on decarbonization "in ways that might be done in an optimal fashion" while providing flexibility, said John Di Stasio, president of the LPPC.
Asked if the ACE rule matters, Thomas Falcone, CEO of the Long Island Power Authority, said flatly, "No."
Falcone noted the New York Legislature last week "in the absence of federal policy" approved a sweeping climate plan that mandates a carbon neutral economy by 2050 and carbon neutral grid by 2040.
The state has one coal plant left that will shut down next year, he said. "It's really state energy policy rather than federal on the climate issue right now," Falcone said.
Steve Wright, general manager of the Chelan County Public Utility District in Washington, said that state — which as no coal plants — has put in place a clean electricity transformation act to cut carbon emissions.
And Jackie Sargent, general manager of Austin Energy in Texas, said the utility has migrated from planning what generation resources it needs to a "generation resource and climate action plan."
"We've been transitioning to renewable energy and emphasized energy efficiency and demand-side management" to achieve lower growth in electricity demand, she said.
As Austin Energy adds more renewables, it will be able to "exit its coal position by 2022," she added.
No lifeline for coal
LPPC Chairman Pope said that while his utility is "certainly moving ahead with ways to mitigate our carbon footprint, that doesn't necessarily mean we're going to close a coal plant."
But the utility is taking other steps on the path to a cleaner grid.
NPPD has the 1,365-megawatt coal-fired Gerald Gentleman Station and the smaller 225-MW Sheldon Station. It also has a 162-MW share in a coal plant with the Omaha Public Power District.
One of the two Sheldon units — at around 105 MW and built in 1961 — is about to be converted to a hydrogen-fueled facility in a deal with a large industrial customer, Pope said. The conversion, which is slated for later this year, would displace roughly 1 million tons of CO2 a year, Pope said.
As to the improvements in coal unit heat rates endorsed as a way to curb CO2 in the ACE rule, Pope said that "we're always going after those efficiency improvements because we're all about lowering the costs for our consumers."
"The low-hanging fruit of those types of projects is long gone. The incremental opportunities for others is going to be very small," he said.
NPPD is also exploring carbon capture and sequestration.
"We're situated in an area where there are probably more options for sequestration than in other areas of the country, so we're going to take a hard look at that," Pope said.
"In the Carolinas, we have and are continuing to retire coal units" in partnership with Duke Energy Corp., said Roy Jones, CEO of ElectriCities of North Carolina, which has customers in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.
Like NPPD's Pope, Jones doesn't see ACE extending the life of coal plants. "No sir, I don't think it's going to make any difference," he said. "When I look at the rule, if the heat rate improvements at a plant were economic, they would have already been done."
In the communities ElectriCities serves, "having a finger on the pulse on the community is very important," Jones said.
"Without exception, every one of them have individuals in their communities who want to do more with renewables" such as rooftop solar, community solar and energy efficiency to reduce their carbon footprint, he said.
North Carolina has a goal to reduce CO2 emissions 40% by 2040, "and we're 23.7% of the way there already," Jones said.
"What are the things that we can do to reduce that carbon footprint in each community and in the aggregate will make a difference?" he added.
LPPC President Di Stasio said that more of the conversations within the LPPC are about certainty and that having continual rulemaking and litigation on rulemakings aren't necessarily helpful.
The LPPC, he said, had told former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt that "it's very difficult in our industry to make long-term decisions on four-year election cycles."
May 6, 2019
By John Di Stasio
The U.S. electric grid we rely upon today started modestly well over a hundred years ago. Local power plants provided community lighting and powered public transportation. Those microgrids grew and expanded to provide electricity for homes, businesses and factories.
As the numbers and types of end-uses grew, so did the grid expanding and connecting regionally. Large federal investments in regional energy projects such as Northwest hydro and the flood and power management in the Tennessee Valley, combined with rural electrification, led to the national system that we have today. Three large interconnections with interstate transmission and a mix of public and private generation provide the United States with one of the best systems in the world and one that has been an economic engine fueling U.S. economic growth and significant advances in our quality of life.
Fast forward to 2019, and Congress has recognized that our current infrastructure, of all types, needs repairs, updates and modernization. It is clearly an interest of both political parties, and while there are significant differences in priorities and funding ideas, there seems to be growing consensus that it’s time for a major push to prepare us for the next 100 years.
The challenge lies in part with what should be done by the various levels of government in concert with industry and other stakeholders and how to identify and make no regrets for investments in the future. As we contemplate these investments, we face challenges that didn’t previously exist related to urbanization, congestion, climate and air quality and significant changes in how people live and work. The world has also become digital, allowing for the integration of physical assets and digital networks.
The public power business model is unique in its relationship with the communities and customers it serves. The direct accountability to consumers through local governance creates a strong alignment with the planning objectives of the communities being served.
Public power systems are frequently a significant resource as communities pursue economic development, environmental improvements and other essential public priorities. Communities are the building blocks of a national infrastructure program, and in the case of public power cities and regions, the electric grid is an excellent platform to support advances and investments in transport modernization, emerging technology, public safety and resilience.
Public power communities are already making significant investments in local generation and storage, energy efficiency, electrification of transportation, cyber security and resilience. To expand these investments, the federal government needs to frame a set of national infrastructure priorities, ensure access to low-cost capital and provide research and development funding, grants and incentives.
For public power, the preservation of tax-exempt bonds, restoration of advance refunding and updating of private use rules are all essential elements of infrastructure funding. Additional means of funding, such as direct pay bonds to provide additional tools and comparability with private investors, are also very important.
If the federal government establishes the overarching priorities and provides some funding and additional financial tools, just as it did over 100 years ago, the communities across the country, in coordination with their states, will make significant advancements in modernizing our infrastructure. Modernizing and hardening the local and regional electric grids is a critical catalyst in any infrastructure modernization program.
The Large Public Power Council, whose 27 members serve over 30 million electric consumers and some of the largest and most-dynamic cities and regions in the country, stands ready to serve as a critical building block in a federal infrastructure push. Our regional differences are a strength, helping to unleash innovation and creativity based on regional differences while maintaining alignment with our communities. Our strong history of collaboration and integration with local communities across the nation ensures that the investments made will be without regret.
John Di Stasio is the president of the Large Public Power Council, a not-for-profit organization comprised of 27 of the nation’s largest public power systems that advocates for policies that allow public power systems to build infrastructure, invest in communities and provide reliable service at affordable rates.
Forbes: Corporate Sector and Institutional Investors Deliver a One-Two Punch to Knock Out CO2 Increases
September 26, 2018
By Ken Silverstein
Americans are having to hold their noses when it comes to political news out of Washington. But luckily they may breathe a little easier now that the corporate world and institutional investors are stepping up efforts to reduce CO2 releases.
At issue here is giving corporations the incentive that that they need to implement clean energy technologies — things that no doubt require capital outlays but which may ultimately add to their bottom lines and preserve the ecology for generations to come. But why do so if their federal government imposes no such demands?
That’s why companies ranging from Audi to the National Grid are presenting a plan to reduce energy use tied to the U.S. transport sector by 50% by 2050. Working under the banner of the Alliance to Save Energy and their 50x50 Commission, they have devised ways to improve both the regulatory and financial pathways to getting there. That includes aggressive leadership at the federal level that can help research and develop promising new technologies such as electric vehicles and more advanced batteries. The steady infusion of capital, for example, has driven down the price of solar panels and windmills.
“National Grid remains committed to reducing emissions in the transportation sector. We have long recognized the important role electrification will play in the Northeast's clean energy transition and its carbon emissions reduction efforts,” said Dean Seavers, President of National Grid, US. “Building new and unique partnerships to promote the adoption of more efficient vehicles will be critical to this effort and our customers will be the ultimate drivers of the shift to a clean energy future.”
Utilities, of course, have a financial stake in the evolution to electric vehicles because they would be selling the “fuel.” A successful transition, though, would reduce the country’s dependency on oil and cut lower the cost of household transportation while also giving public transport a big boost. Consider that the transportation represents about 28% of all greenhouse gas emissions, says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Others that are part of the 50x50 Commission include WGL Holdings/Washington Gas, Southern Company and Schneider Electric — as well as the trade association the Edison Electric Institute, which represents investor-owned utilities. The New York Power Authority and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District are also part of the consortium, as well as the Large Public Power Council.
General Motors, which is building a host of electric vehicles, is also a part of the group. But it opposing the Obama administration’s move to raise the mileage standard from 35.5 miles per gallon to 54.5 miles gallon by 2025. In a letter dated February 10, 2018 automakers such as Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler said that the previous administration rushed through its analysis in mid 2016 that the standards should be 54.5 miles per gallon in 2025. The Trump administration has proposed a standard of 37 miles-per-gallon — a move that critics say will impede the effort to sell electric cars.
Meantime, California’s Governor Jerry Brown just signed legislation to require institutional investors there to report their “climate-related financial risks.” The law impacts CalSTRS and Calpers, which has said it is asking companies to cut their CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050.
Roughly $6.5 trillion is invested using such environmental, social and corporate governance criteria in the United States, according to US SIF. Globally, the amount is about $26 trillion. That’s according to Climate Action 100+, which says that companies focused on the triple bottom line — economics, environment and social — are outperforming other broader indices and they are also demonstrating that they are living their missions and ingraining their brands among their customers.
"One thing we learned,” said Janet Cox of Fossil Free California, "is that we have to bend the emissions curve back in a downward direction by 2020—if we're to have any chance of keeping global warming to 'significantly below 2 degrees Celsius,' as the Paris agreement requires.”
Implicit in the discussion is whether institutional investors should use their leverage to force corporate asset owners to take into account things like carbon emissions and climate change. In the past, those investors have been effective in getting companies to listen and to act, although critics of those policies say that the corporate fiduciaries are obliged to do what is in the financial interest of their participants.
Many pension fund managers have also asked the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to institute stronger reporting requirements for sustainability risks such as climate change.
The power sector, for example, needs to $2 trillion capital expansion over the next 20 years. Utilities must access the capital markets and they are well positioned to attract such investments if they pursue sustainable strategies.
“If you can’t master what is in front of you, you can’t master the future,” says Bill Johnson, chief executive of the Tennessee Valley Authority, in an interview with this writer. “Now we are thinking about what happens next. At TVA we believe in being environmental stewards.”
It’s hard to ignore the broader context of those institutional investor and corporate efforts — that the Trump administration has thumbed its nose at the climate cause and generally, pro-environmental positions. But the Paris climate agreement in combination with public demand have served as clarion calls: get on board or get left behind. Change is happening. Society is adapting. And more effective public-private partnerships could speed that up.
RenewPR: The Common Sense Colloquy: Q&A with John Di Stasio of Large Public Power Council
September 21, 2018
John was formerly the General Manager and CEO of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) from June of 2008 through April of 2014. He has an extensive background in the energy industry, but is also the owner of Di Stasio Vineyards in Amador County, California. In short, he’s a man of diverse – and fascinating - interests. He’s also smart, direct and wise – a great candidate to share common sense about energy communications.
Our thanks to John for sharing his time and insight with us – and you.
Q: The American energy market seems to be in a constant state of flux. Does that apply to the large public power companies that are your members as well? How do they - and you - communicate in a time of such confusion and contention?
A: Change has certainly been a constant over the past several years. That said, the change offers utilities an opportunity to expand their value proposition and strengthen their relationship with customers. Many of the changes are driven by technology and customer interest and less so from policy and regulation. Understanding these dynamics require understanding the potential of technologies being deployed outside of our sector. The consumer/utility relationship is going to change, enabled by technology, so it is important to lean in to that reality. When any organization seeks to change it’s great to start with a strong understanding of the existing customer relationship. With that baseline, a strong communication plan can be developed to close the gap between the existing relationship and the desired one. These changes are a large focus of the Large Public Power Council members and they start with a direct relationship with consumers and communities, so they start from a good place.
Q: What challenges do you and your members have in communicating about the value and relevance of your industry generally? How do you address them?
A: There is so much competition for the attention of consumers or stakeholders, messages need to be succinct, compelling and aligned with consumer perceptions. Absent that, it is very hard to influence or educate key constituencies. We believe that we have a unique business model given our direct relationship with consumer/owners and the access and accountability that comes with local governance. Even so, it is not well understood and many times there is little interest in the value and relevance that can come from the public power business model. The best way to address these communication barriers is to reflect the value through both words and deeds. Our strength is our connection to communities so being visible in the community through volunteerism, support for economic development and environmental stewardship all combine to tell the story and reflect the value and relevance.
Q: Your background is fascinating: you've been a public power company chief executive, you're now the leader of the public power industry's trade association and you also own a vineyard. What have you learned about communications from those different leadership positions?
A: If there is a common denominator in all those roles it’s one I learned from many years of farming. In farming, many factors are outside of your control with the most significant being weather. Given that reality it is important to hedge the risk you can, but, more importantly, to manage those elements that you do control very well. Whether running a utility, representing utilities in an association or growing grapes it’s very important to understand your strengths, weaknesses and limitations. All three of those ventures have made for an interesting career. Communicating flows from that self-awareness. It is always important to be factual, credible and sincere. Those are certainly elements that can be controlled.
Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you’ve received?
A: Active listening before communicating is critical to a message hitting its mark. Also, brevity is important. If something can be communicated and understood with a simple and concise message, then a more extensive and complicated one isn’t necessarily helpful.
Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you've given to others?
A: Do your best to know your audience and always be factual and credible. People generally appreciate authenticity even if a message is difficult.