Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:00:56] Today on Energy Impact, I'm pleased to have Sheri Givens, the President and CEO of the Smart Electric Power Alliance. Welcome to the podcast.
Sheri Givens [00:01:04] Great to be here. Thank you for the invitation.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:01:06] Absolutely. So, I'd love to just jump right into your background and focus in on what brought you to the clean energy space in the first place. How did you come to this sector and get interested in clean energy?
Sheri Givens [00:01:21] Yeah, I'm happy to answer that. So, I actually have a pretty unique background, I think, in this industry, specifically. I've been in energy for about 20 years, but five years prior to that I worked in legislation. I originally started in the Texas House, Texas Senate, and Texas governor's office, working in the legislature. I went to law school, and upon graduating law school, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do next. I ended up going back to the Texas legislature and working in the Senate. This was right after restructuring happened in Texas, so things were popping. There was a lot going on and it was a really exciting time.
Sheri Givens [00:01:54] I was doing a fellowship in the Senate, and when that fellowship ended, I was looking for a job as an attorney. And I knew I wanted to go into public service, so I started applying at different state agencies including the Attorney General's office and the Public Utility Commission of Texas. The PUC called and they made me an offer. And they said, "Do you want to do electric or telecom?" And I said, "Both," because I know nothing about either. And that started my professional journey in the electric sector, and it was fantastic.
Sheri Givens [00:02:21] So, at the Utility Commission, I was an attorney. I was advising the three governor-appointed utility Commissioners on a biweekly basis in preparation for open meetings, whether it was rate cases or transmission siting or regulatory or policy proceedings, even testifying before the legislature. And it just really excited me to be in energy at that time. That was the early 2000s, so we'd just opened the markets into retail electric choice in Texas.
Sheri Givens [00:02:45] From there, I actually went to the Office of Public Utility Counsel, which is the utility consumer advocate for the state of Texas. So essentially, it operated as a small law firm that represented all the residential and small business customers in Texas before the Public Utility Commission and the legislature and the courts. It wasn't a job; it was amazing. I had the opportunity to get in my truck and drive across the great state of Texas, really listening to customers on their journey, understanding why energy was important to their homes, to their families.
Sheri Givens [00:03:17] I did a lot of work with military families, working with readiness groups, family readiness groups, when their spouses were overseas doing deployments and they were trying to figure out how are they going to pay the bills. So, talking to them about how they could save money, energy efficiency, weatherization, low-income programs... Really getting to the heart of what mattered to people and understanding what they needed. I even had them bringing their utility bills to the meetings. And we would sit down and look at the different retail options that they had.
Sheri Givens [00:03:49] I also was able to serve on the ERCOT, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, Board of Directors, representing residential customers and the Texans Reliability Entity Board as well. And NASUCA, the National Association of State Utility Consumer Advocates. I was on their Executive Committee for three years during my service at OPUC, which was just such an honor. Because, 50-plus consumer advocates across the nation all working on thinking about how they're going to effectively represent customers in their respective states.
Sheri Givens [00:04:17] From there, I did some utility consulting. I worked for the alphabet soup of trade associations. Really focused on how I could best solve the needs of my clients in the energy transition. And then most recently, just prior to joining SEPA, I worked for an investor-owned utility in the Northeast, National Grid, which services 20 million customers in Massachusetts, New York, and formerly, Rhode Island. Really focused on the carbon-free, fossil-free transition. So, when the opportunity to join SEPA came along, I said yes, immediately.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:04:49] That's such a fascinating journey. I actually didn't really appreciate just how people driven your role was. I mean, driving around Texas, actually speaking with people about how energy impacts their lives. And then, taking that very personal experience in energy and then actually being able to kind of take that broader as you expanded your work outside of just the state of Texas at National Grid and now overall, nationally, across the full utility landscape.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:05:19] I wonder if you could share any specific stories or lessons learned from when you moved from the state-based, very local engagement that you were doing. How did that translate into the work that you started doing where you're really helping to orchestrate how folks are thinking about clean energy impacting their lives on the national level? What was that journey was like for you as you moved along in terms of your scope?
Sheri Givens [00:05:47] I've been in my role, currently, as President and CEO for about five months, so I'm still relatively new. But when I did my consulting for five years, I also had a national footprint. So, I worked with organizations from coast to coast. I think, again, just based on my background, my experience is just unique in this industry. I've worked for the regulator. I've worked for the consumer advocate. I've been a consultant. I've worked for a utility. So, I think just having that broad-based background.
Sheri Givens [00:06:13] And with that background comes a network. And I have a lot of peers and colleagues and mentors and sponsors that I so appreciate that have really helped me understand and really helped round out my own experience and education and learning about energy. So, I think that's been really helpful. And as I think about SEPA and what we have to do to really accelerate the transformation to a carbon-free electric system, it's really bringing in that background and that experience and bringing in those insights to help our members think about how they're going to actually tell their story about their journey to carbon-free.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:06:47] So, let's actually dive into SEPA and make sure that folks have a good understanding of what SEPA is, what its mission is, and what you guys do. And then, if there are specific areas of your work, your research, and how you educate folks that you'd like to highlight, that'd be great. So, can you give us an overview of the history of the organization? I know you've only been there for five months. And I'd love to hear as well what you're looking towards in the future now that you're at the helm.
Sheri Givens [00:07:12] So, the organization actually began over 30 years ago, in 1992. It was the Utility Photovoltaic Group. Say that 10 times fast. Obviously, a need to change our name down the road. And it was a first of its kind partnership with the US Department of Energy, really focused on DOE partnering with utilities on solar deployment. So, for about 20 years, they worked through that program really trying to ensure that solar was being deployed by the utilities.
Sheri Givens [00:07:39] Over time, the organization decided that there was a lot more need in the industry. In addition to solar, there needed to be a look at other solutions, whether that was energy storage and whatnot. So, they expanded their role and expanded their name in 2002 to the Solar Electric Power Association. And it was really, again, focused on helping utilities find those smart solutions really to progress solar and their respective service territories.
Sheri Givens [00:08:08] And then once again, in 2016, they saw again a rising need from their membership to really expand what technology solutions were available to get to carbon-free. And so to do that, it was "solar and." So, in addition to solar, which is still part of our focus, we decided we needed to focus on some other technologies that were out there, whether it was energy storage, wind energy, electric vehicles, microgrids, hydrogen fuel cells, most recently, virtual power plants, thinking through what more we can do for our constituency, our membership. So then, we changed to the Smart Electric Power Alliance.
Sheri Givens [00:08:47] And today, we have over 1,100 members. And that membership consists of utilities. And it's all brands and stripes of utilities. So, investor-owned utilities, public power and electric cooperatives. We also have a number of technology companies and corporate members like the Hitachis and the Amazons that are really thinking through how to get to carbon-free and to help utilities in the broader energy sector get there. And we also have members that are regulators and government agencies and nonprofit organizations all focused singularly on carbon-free transition.
Sheri Givens [00:09:21] So in my mind, I kind of envision SEPA as the big table, all about collaboration and facilitation and education, ensuring that we all have that single focus, that line of sight into what a carbon-free electric system looks like going forward. And we provide that background, that basis, that information, that education and that facilitation of conversations to help our members and other stakeholders in the industry get to the system that we envision as the right way to go. Because, I mean, climate change is the critical issue of our day. And the way that we're going to mitigate that is to get to that carbon-free energy system.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:09:59] That's fascinating. I mean, the list of membership is so broad and I think it's really critical to have one very central core goal that you're all working towards, decarbonization and the transition to clean energy, in order to unite all of those different groups and different members that have their own interests. From private to public sector, from the nonprofits to the utilities, that sounds like a big challenge, actually. So could you kind of dive into how does SEPA actually help to facilitate that dialog and help folks really keep that throughline and that focus on decarbonization?
Sheri Givens [00:10:39] So, we work with our members. When our members come to us, a lot of times they ask questions and they want to try to find solutions. So, we have a team of 50-plus in D.C. and across 14 states that are really at the front lines of trying to define the solutions for our members, whether it be a utility, a corporate member, a state energy office, a utility commission, and the like. So, we provide advisory services to them.
Sheri Givens [00:11:02] We also do projects where we have multiple members join in. We might have a project where we have eight different utilities and a couple of other stakeholders, maybe corporate members, that come together and they're focused on like one issue. And maybe it's like transportation electrification and benchmarking equity. That's one example of some recent work that we came through. But it's really about trying to find ways to collaborate, to work together, because we know that we can't do this alone. No one utility can get there on their own. We have to do it in collaboration.
Sheri Givens [00:11:31] So, we do it through that. We do it through facilitation, bringing our different stakeholders, bringing our different members and other interested parties to the table to talk through different opportunities and different options. And really, again, through education. So, we're a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. We don't lobby. However, we do educate. So, we can take that technology agnostic, solution agnostic approach, and really provide just honest information about different approaches and different options.
Sheri Givens [00:12:02] Because at SEPA, we realize that there's no one silver bullet that's going to meet every organization's, every utility's, every service territory's needs. The things that are going to work in the US Northeast are not going to work in the Southwest or the Northwest. So, we're really trying to figure out what's the best area, best focus. Whether it's a policy or a program, a publication, a study... How can we best help our membership? And that's what they come to us for, because we are the experts in finding the solutions that they need in their roles to really accelerate the transformation.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:12:36] That's fascinating. It'd be great to hear about some of the specific projects and tools, resources that you guys have recently been working with. I know there's the Utility Transformation Challenge. That might be one of interest to talk about.
Sheri Givens [00:12:49] Yeah, so just last month, in February of 2023, we came out with our Utility Transformation Profile. It's a voluntary survey of our members. We had 118 of our members... And this is investor-owned utilities, municipal utilities, and public power participated in it. It starts out with a list of questions that was issued last spring and last summer. And all the utilities compile that information and send it to our subject matter experts who really look through it all and pull it all together and find out what's working, what's not. What are the best practices, what are the lessons learned? Who are the utilities that are really taking the step up and accelerating the transformation in their specific service territories?
Sheri Givens [00:13:34] So, there's a whole host of areas that we look at. Corporate leadership, carbon reduction, aligned actions, stakeholder facilitation. We're really thinking through, "What are the important things, the tools, the frameworks that are necessary for the utilities to get to carbon-free?" And from there, we actually look at some of the utilities that are really doing it right. And we hope that those utilities are kind of like the gold standard that stand out that other utilities can look at and say, "I might need to incorporate that in what I'm doing, what I'm working on." In the Utility Transformation Profile, we have 14 utilities that we called out on our leader board. And these are really utilities that are accelerating the transformation of carbon-free within their specific service territory. And we look at them as the leaders in the industry that other utilities can learn from because they're doing so much in this space.
Sheri Givens [00:14:24] I would say one of the most interesting things that we found in this Transformation Profile was related to equity. For SEPA, equity is the center of everything that we do. And all of our reports and all of our publications and in all of our programming, even, we're thinking about how can we be equitable and serve our customers, our constituencies, and their customers and their constituencies? And when the question of equity arose, about 58% of the utilities that participated in the survey were not yet thinking about equity from the standpoint of planning processes, whether that was infrastructure generation, transmission, or distribution. So, it's our hope... And we're optimistic... Through working with us and working with other stakeholders that equity could become the center of their work as well. So, that's what we're trying to progress.
Sheri Givens [00:15:11] So, it was a wonderful project. For anyone that's interested in downloading the report, they can go to sepapower.org and review the results of the report. This was our second annual endeavor, so we'll be doing it again next year.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:15:25] Well, and I love that you even called it a leader board, right? Because, it's not just sharing of best practices, but really highlighting those that are exemplary. It almost creates a little bit of jealousy, a little bit of FOMO and competition to want to be at the top of that chart in the next year, so that's really, really great. And I also love that you highlighted equity as a key metric. Are there other key metrics, maybe not just within this challenge or this survey, that SEPA focuses on in addition to just more clean energy that you focus on in all of the dialogs you facilitate?
Sheri Givens [00:16:02] Yeah, so one of the other projects that we are really proud of is our Carbon Reduction Tracker. Again, it's free and it's available on our website. We've noticed that utility commissions and other folks that are intervening in proceedings across the nation are starting to reference it. And what it does, it looks at the utilities nationwide on their journey to carbon-free. One of the things that we noted in the Utility Transformation Challenge and we're noting in our Carbon Reduction Tracker is that the utilities that are making the largest strides in carbon reduction are really focused on all emissions. And when I say all emissions, I mean Scope 1, Scope 2, Scope 3. So, direct emissions and indirect emissions.
Sheri Givens [00:16:38] In the Utility Transformation Profile, it's also highlighted that those utilities that are working with those third-party verification organizations like the Science Based Target initiative, those are the ones that are really progressing that transparent, open dialog with their customers, letting them know that they really are trying to achieve certain carbon reduction metrics.
Sheri Givens [00:16:59] It's also those utilities that have milestones. That they're looking and tracking their progress to date against those milestones, whether it's a certain percentage or it's a certain year or a certain date that they're trying to get to to actually show their progress against their plan. So, that kind of gives you a little bit of insight into what we're thinking about with those top leaders, those folks that are really trying to push the needle when it comes to carbon reduction. That's reflected in our Carbon Reduction Tracker and also in our Utility Transformation Profile.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:17:27] Fascinating. What I think is also so important... You mentioned the Department of Energy that's clearly an ally. If you could speak to how the work that SEPA does, engaging with folks across the whole clean energy spectrum or just energy spectrum in the United States, how that work supports and complements the work that the government is doing to also encourage that same group of folks to think more seriously about decarbonization. How do you interface with government and complement what government is also doing?
Sheri Givens [00:17:58] The US Department of Energy, specifically, we've had a project with them for several years with one of their labs, the National Renewable Energy Lab, NREL. We do a project called Voices of Experience. So, we focused on several different initiatives. Most recently, it was related to equity. And so, you can go to our website and we have these SEPA TV episodes where we have utilities that are talking about what they're thinking about as they're planning for their different infrastructure investments and their different outreach to their community and what they look like in their equity journey.
Sheri Givens [00:18:30] I know before I joined SEPA... And when I was with a utility, I was asked to join one of these webinars. It was fantastic because I was able to share what the utility that I worked for was thinking about and how they were framing equity and how they were trying to benchmark it and what they were thinking about going forward. So, that's been really fantastic, working with the Department of Energy.
Sheri Givens [00:18:50] Most recently, we also did a workshop in conjunction with the Loan Programs Office and Jigar Shah and NARUC, the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, on virtual power plants. So again, we're trying to assist the state government entities, the regulators, in understanding this as an opportunity as well as helping the federal government in their outreach, in their education related to VPP and other programs. So, that just gives you a flavor of some of the areas that we're educating and working on.
Sheri Givens [00:19:19] In the past, we've also brought together utility commissioners, consumer advocates, utilities, and other government organizations in different task forces and initiatives. We're focused on regulatory and business innovation, frameworks, different kinds of business models that can really help, again, accelerate the transformation to carbon-free. So where we are, again, that's the big table. We want to bring everyone to the table. We want everyone's voice heard. We're all about thinking through the big ideas, the innovation, and the solutions that are going to get there. We know we have a lot of the technologies today that are going to get us to carbon-free, but we're excited about new technologies that are entering the scene. And so, that's why it's essential for us to convene folks to really come together to talk about the big ideas on how we're going to achieve our big goals together.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:20:10] Yeah, yeah. I love how you also mentioned business model, because it isn't just technology, right? You can have the best technology in the world, but if you don't have a way to deploy it smartly, it doesn't have the right kind of product-market fit, you're not going to get anywhere. So, could you dive into that a little bit? And you also mentioned virtual power plants, which I think might be a new topic for some of our listeners, which is also an innovation that we're seeing in the space. Could you dive into some of the innovations that you're seeing and how that's shaping the future work that SEPA is doing, but also the education focus of some of those innovations?
Sheri Givens [00:20:45] Yeah. From an innovation standpoint, I mean, we're always looking to see what's the new technology out there. We do international fact-finding missions every year. Most recently, we went to Australia. We're planning a trip to Denmark in June. We take a number of our executive utility and corporate members to really experienced firsthand what other countries are doing. There are lessons learned when it comes to innovation and technology.
Sheri Givens [00:21:07] When it's related to business models, we're always trying to help think through how are utilities going to get funded for some of that innovation? One of the challenges is with the regulatory construct, when a utility goes in and asks for funding for a specific project, they typically have to do that through a rate case. And a rate case can take 12 to 18 months. And with technology booming and changing as quickly as it is, sometimes that can be challenging for utilities to actually get through their ask and their requests for innovation for funding. So, we're trying to help them think through like what are the best actions or efforts to make a filing with their regulatory commission. Is it something that's a component of a rate case? Is it a standalone filing? Is it some other construct that hasn't been thought through before? How are we going to make this happen quicker, faster, at pace, to really mitigate climate change? Because ultimately, that's what we're all trying to do.
Sheri Givens [00:22:06] So, it's again, bringing everyone to the table to have those conversations and to be honest about it. Because it is a challenge for both utilities, for corporate members, for developers and the like, to really want to see things happen faster. But you have to recognize the rules and regulations that are in place, both at the federal and the state level and even the local level, to really try to get things done.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:22:27] Yeah, absolutely. And again, I'm really glad that you're not just pulling in best practices from across all of your membership in the United States, but also looking at other models to bring in where other people have already figured some of these things out. We don't have the same regulatory frameworks as other countries, necessarily, but we don't have to reinvent the wheel every single time. And having that broad scope as an organization to actually go out on that fact-finding mission and ensure that all of your membership does have the most up to date and accurate examples and case studies to think about some of the challenges they're facing is absolutely critical, and I'm really glad to hear that you guys are doing that work and playing that facilitator role. And also, bringing your membership directly to those other folks, internationally, that they can directly learn from.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:23:18] I'd love to think more about the future. Are there upcoming initiatives or projects that you can tell us about publicly that you're focused on for 2023 that you're particularly excited about?
Sheri Givens [00:23:30] Yeah, so a lot of the work that we did last year was focused on equity. I mentioned the Voices of Experience and our partnership with NREL and DOE. And then, most recently, the Utility Transformation Profile. So in the coming months, probably even in the coming weeks, you'll see some work coming out from us that's really focused on equity and how do we achieve equity in the carbon-free transition. So, that's some really exciting work that we're working on.
Sheri Givens [00:23:53] In addition to all of our publications and the work that we do with our members, we also are very much involved with RE+. It is the largest North American energy trade show, and that's upcoming in September. But leading up to that, we have eight regional events. Most recently, I was at RE+ Northeast in Boston. I just came back from RE+ Northern California in Sacramento. I'm headed to RE+ Texas next week, in Austin. And that's really an opportunity, again, to bring all of the great thought leaders together to talk about different components of renewable energy that are going to help us get to a carbon-free system. So, those are some things that we're excited about.
Sheri Givens [00:24:35] I mentioned the Denmark mission. That will be our 14th international fact-finding mission that we've taken our members on. Just the takeaways and the information that our members bring back from those events and that they can actually implement within their own service territories, within their own utilities, is fascinating. We've really had a really good response to those fact-finding missions. So, there's a lot happening at SEPA right now. It's hard to pin down what I'm excited about because I'm excited about it all. I mean, I really do think that it's one of the most wonderful organizations. It's mission-driven, it's member-driven, and we've got so much to do. And the impetus on us is just that there's so little time to do it because we really need to try to solve this problem on climate change together. And we need all the stakeholders, everyone at the table, to have that discussion with us.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:25:27] I'm glad you also brought up timing. I think that's just the most critical thing to not lose sight of. We don't have a lot of time to make a pretty radical shift in how we live our daily lives. I mean, to put it frankly, energy is the foundation of absolutely everything. And transitioning to a clean energy economy is going to be hard. But we really need to think about it not just in terms of, "Oh, it's a 50 year problem," or, "It's not a 50 year problem. It's not a 100 year problem," it's something we have to be really serious about over the next 5 to 10 years if we're going to make a real big impact.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:26:02] So, when you think about that challenge of actually getting us to the clean energy future in the next decade, what does that look like for you? The vision for you, personally, as President and CEO of SEPA, but also for the organization? How do you personally think about that vision of clean energy?
Sheri Givens [00:26:24] Yeah, I think about it as tools, technologies, and policies. We need to think about every tool that we can utilize to get to carbon-free. We need think about every technology that we have today and those technologies that we will have tomorrow. We need to think about the technologies that we're piloting or need to be piloted and how do we get them to scale to help us get to carbon-free. And the policies, they have to incentivize. They have to really push those technologies because we don't always see that at the level that we need to see it.
Sheri Givens [00:26:56] So, when we start thinking about technologies, I mean, yes, it's solar. Yes, it's storage. Microgrids, distributed energy resources, wind and hydrogen and fuel cells. And as we mentioned, virtual power plants. Geothermal. Like, there are so many different ideas. Carbon capture, direct air capture. Like, what do we not know? We just heard DOE coming out with its announcement about fusion. There are so many things that are happening and you just don't know what's going to happen tomorrow or what new technology's going to come to the forefront. But also thinking about the technologies that we have today and how do we bring them to scale as rapidly as possible? So, I think we're at a really exciting time to be in this industry and I'm really looking forward to the next steps and again, working together with our members and other stakeholders to try to get to carbon-free.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:27:45] Yeah. So, in terms of those other stakeholders, right? I mean, some of the folks listening to this podcast might be members of SEPA, they might be utilities. It might be a natural fit to work directly with SEPA, but I'm sure many others aren't. They're just energy enthusiasts and would love to be able to support the work that you're doing. How can folks either support SEPA directly, get involved, or at least contribute in their own organizations or personally to the work that you guys are doing?
Sheri Givens [00:28:11] So, we have a pretty comprehensive website that provides all the information about membership. We partner with a lot of other nonprofit organizations, NGOs, non-governmental organizations, some academic partners, really trying to help think through how we're going to get to carbon-free. So, I highly recommend folks go to our website and check out all the different resources that we have available. If they're interested in becoming a member and helping us to come up with those great ideas that are really going to get to the actionable solutions for our utilities and our corporate members and our regulators, then please. We don't want to say "no" to anyone. We want everyone to join us, to have that conversation, because it's all about collaboration. We know that we can't get there alone. We need to have all voices at the table and make sure everyone's heard.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:28:58] So maybe on a closing note, I'd love to give you an opportunity just to speak about what your vision is over the next year, several years. When you think about all of what you just talked about in terms of the technologies that are going to be coming, the projects that SEPA is focused on, to really create this economy of the future and really bring everybody together to see the change that we need. The floor is yours.
Sheri Givens [00:29:28] So as I mentioned, I've just been in the role for five months. I've really initiated a listening tour, really understanding our members and what they expect from us, where they are on their carbon-free journey. I've been talking to our board members. We have an amazing board of 20 board members that represent our membership largely and broadly. And talking to them, listening to them. What do they need and expect and hope to see from SEPA.
Sheri Givens [00:29:54] I've also been talking to my internal team and understanding where their journey is and what their path with SEPA is. So, it's been about listening. And soon, that's going to evolve into action. Like, what do we do with all this great information and all the things that have been provided to us as an organization? Right now, we have 70% of the utilities nationwide that are members. I'd love to see that be 90%, 100%, so everyone can actually reflect upon all the work that we've done and actually utilize it to help them on their carbon-free journey.
Sheri Givens [00:30:25] I've mentioned our fact-finding missions, internationally. There might be opportunities, again, to bring in some of that information from countries that are doing it right or some countries that might not be doing it right. We've got to learn our lessons, valuable lessons, from our colleagues in other countries that are on their carbon-free journey.
Sheri Givens [00:30:43] And then, just finally, equity. Just again, making sure that no customer is left behind in this clean energy transition. We have to all remember that we're all electricity customers. And we're all wanting to flip the switch, the lights come on. Turn the heat on, our home is warm. We want to take care of our families, but we also want to take care of our neighbors. So, making sure that we're able to tell that story along with our membership on what's going to be needed to be invested to get to that carbon-free system and why it's important. We have to make those strategic investments to get to that carbon-free system to ensure a healthy planet for all.
Michelle Brechtelsbauer [00:31:19] Thank you so much, Sheri. It was really great to have you on EIP.
Sheri Givens [00:31:23] Thank you, Michelle. I appreciate your time today.