Hometown Connections Executive Consultant, Former APPA board chair and general manager of Pasadena Water & Power
When the young woman that Phyllis Currie hired to be communications director recommended her boss use Twitter more thoroughly, Currie gained an understanding of her own rcchnologicallimirarions and a bit of wisdom about the future of her business.
The communications director had suggested Currie, then general manager at Pasadena Water &: Power, start using social media that Currie felt was beyond her scope or needs, but she also introduced the utility to new ways of communicating with customers and gcning their feedback.
“She had all kinds of new ideas – good ideas about customer-facing technology,” Currie said. “And I saw that this was the way we needed ro be in other aspects of our work – thinking about our relations to the customer in new ways. You leverage your strength, and your strength, in public power especially, is your connection to the customer.”
Currie said that concern for the customer has served her well in several roles in the industry, supported by a strong work ethic and an ability to connect with people, a skill she honed and she believes is critical for any manager in the industry. She also said she benefited from new opportunities for women and minorities in an industry where neither had historically led.
Currie spent 14 years with Pasadena Water &: Power, where she was recognized for spearheading efforts to develop new flexible electric generation units, a multiyear program to upgrade water and electrical distribution systems, new infrastructure to clean up ground water, and a planning process that included “aggressive goals for renewable energy and water conservation.” Under Currie’s leadership, Pasadena was an early adopter of renewable energy policies, establishing goals of having 40 percent of its power generated by renewables by 2020, when the state goal was just 33 percent.
“Those policies were endorsed with a transparent, stakeholder-driven process that clearly identified the costs involved,” she said, again pointing out how key decisions for her have been driven by customer involvement.
Prior to her work with Pasadena, she held a variety of positions with the city of Los Angeles, including chief financial officer for its Department of Water and Power and headed other departments responsible for budgeting and housing issues.
Currie has been chair of the American Public Power Association, president of the California Municipal Utilities Association; and Southern California Public Power Association; and a board member for the Electric Power Research Institute, the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board, and the California Debt Advisory Commission.
More recently, she was elected to the Midcontinent Independent System Operator board and appointed to the Electricity Advisory Committee for the U.S. Department of Energy.
All her experience – in housing, personnel and labor relations, finance, and energy management – she said gave her opportunities to see the industry from different perspectives, though some experiences were more vivid.
The California energy crisis in 2001 strangled Pasadena, forcing rolling blackouts and soaring prices for electricity. But Currie said the crisis also brought positive change.
“It established the platform for having a serious conversation about energy and talk about the changes that were confronting the utility. We came up with plans that involved people from business and academic institutions, from government, and from large customers and small. It resulted in that aggressive goal for renewables.”
She said public power also has to continually look to the future. Another event supported her in that thinking.
A wind storm in 2011, unlike any Pasadena had seen, brought with it sweeping power outages and a steady stream of customer reports that overloaded the utility and prompted it to consider new outage response methods and technology, which it had not moved fast enough to develop. She said the electric industry generally has been slow to change, but that’s improving, fortunately, because customers demand it.
“People today expect technological advancement and solutions. They expect it to be instantaneous information–about their bill, their usage, or when the power will come back on. They expect the utility to know what they know–right away,” she said.
Currie said public power is in a good position going forward because it has had a greater connection with its customers than investor-owned utilities, though the size and tight budgets for public power utilities sometimes limit their options. But often, she said, they can find a solutions if they keep customers at the forefront .
”I’m very proud of the support that Pasadena Water &: Power had from the citizens. That is the very essence of what it means to be a community-owned utility.”