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In Person: Kimberly Harris,
CEO of Puget Sound Energy

by Melissa Allison
Seattle Times, July 10, 2011

The third piece, we're building right now, Lower Snake River. We looked forward and said,
"Let's just buy development rights so we can develop the wind when customers need it."

Kimberly Harris found out early what kind of work she liked, and she stuck with it to become one of the utilities industry's few female CEOs.

The chief executive of Puget Sound Energy since March, Harris knew by age 12 that she wanted to be a lawyer. In her 20s, she fell in love with the utilities industry while doing legal work in the coal-fired power plants and oil fields of Texas.

Soon after moving to Seattle in 1994, Harris called Puget Sound Power & Light. When Harris asked the receptionist if the company had lawyers, he answered, "Boy, do we have lawyers!"

But they were at the law firm Perkins Coie, which disappointed her a little because she wanted to work directly for the utility. She went to work at Perkins Coie, where Puget Power and other utilities were her clients. When Puget Power and Washington Energy merged in 1997, she was the second lawyer hired in Puget Sound Energy's new legal department.

A policy and strategy geek, Harris, 47, loves that utilities are complicated businesses that touch everyone. She also loves the people.

"People work generation after generation at utilities," she explained. "An individual who retired a couple months ago worked for the company 45 years and was born at a power plant on the side of Mount Rainier."

Harris succeeded Steve Reynolds, who retired in March, a little more than a year after the state's largest utility was taken private in a $7 billion buyout led by Australian investment bank Macquarie Group. Alaska Airlines CEO Bill Ayer, who sits on Puget Sound Energy's board, said Harris "has big shoes to fill with Steve's retirement, but her proven background and experience make her fully up to the task."

Harris, who considers herself a "green-slanted individual," moved to Capitol Hill a few years ago and commutes to Puget's Bellevue headquarters. She leaves her car parked on the weekends and walks most places.

Her children go to school nearby -- her daughter at Seattle University and her son at Cornish College of the Arts -- but she laughingly says, "I want to make it clear: I moved to Capitol Hill first. I did not follow them. They followed me."

They make wisecracks about being called her "grown" children in news releases, Harris said. "My daughter wants it to say 'two adorable children.' "

After two decades in the utilities business, Harris says the industry is changing now more than it did in the previous century. Here is an edited interview:

Q: I heard you have a good joke about working for an energy company versus a utility.

A: It's actually my life. If I'm at a party and someone says, "Kimberly, what do you do for a living?" -- if you say you work for an energy company, everyone has an opinion about tidal or solar or what do you think about this? So, if I want to be sociable, I say I work for an energy company.

If I say I work for a utility company, they just skip over you.

But I think in the next 10 years, the utility part is going to be much more exciting.

Q: How?

A: We have to change with our customers, and that's not something our industry has done in the past. They say if Edison walked down the street, he would understand the business because we're still providing service in about the same way we did 100 years ago.

Now, we're looking at energy efficiency as a service and a product.

Traditionally our revenue comes from selling more -- more kilowatts, more therms. Now we're saying, "Use less."

Q: How do you make money that way?

A: We're working on that. What the nation is talking about is, how do you stop losing money on that? ... How a utility makes money needs to change in the future.

A certain amount of energy efficiency may be free, or if you are an industrial or commercial customer, you may want to pay us to come in and do an audit and take it a step further.

In the '70s, [President] Carter said, "Put on a sweater and turn the thermostat to 68 degrees." We don't talk about that anymore. It's not about conserving; it's about new insulation and better appliances. It's not about using less, as much as it is using it efficiently.

Q: Is doing less an ethical and environmental choice, or do we have a problem with supply?

A: Probably a combination.

Q: Do we have the capacity to do electric cars on a large scale?

A: We do. If half our customers went out and purchased electric vehicles, it would require -- over the next 20 years -- half a power plant. For long-term planning purposes, that's not huge. But if everyone comes home and plugs in their car at the same time, that's a peak issue. That's where there are meters available to say, we're going to delay charging for about two hours.

We believe the increase of electric vehicles will be gradual, so we'll have plenty of time to adapt the system.

Q: What do Puget Sound Energy's customers complain about?

A: Our customers want instant information. If the power's out, they want to know when it's coming back. They don't necessarily want to make phone calls; they want Twitter and to use Facebook and avenues of communication that are new to utilities. Can you imagine Twittering -- is that the right word? -- your utility company?

They want to pay by credit card. The issue for utilities is that because we're regulated, we can't just allow credit cards. Sometimes we have to make regulatory filings and make sure it's OK with everyone. So, sometimes we're not as quick and nimble as our customers want us to be.

Q: What about raising rates (which Puget Sound Energy wants to raise in 2012)?

A: We get a lot of billing inquiries, and it's been cold this season, so our customers' bills are higher and for a longer time.

It's a challenging time for our customers, for the economy. We are doing everything possible to keep our costs down, but the infrastructure -- the poles, wires and pipes -- are all aging, and we need to make those investments. We're trying to put off investments, because the region is not seeing growth, but some investments are unavoidable for public safety and system-reliability reasons.

Q: Are you on track to have 15 percent of your energy from wind sources by 2020 (per a voter initiative that passed in 2006)?

A: Next year, we'll have 12 percent and will make more investments to reach 15 percent.

In 2004 or 2005, we invested in our first wind facility. There was not a lot of competition for wind or renewables, so our first facility was an incredible investment. Our second, Wild Horse outside Ellensburg, hooks onto our transmission system. We don't have to pay someone else to deliver the power, so it's more cost beneficial that way.

The third piece, we're building right now, Lower Snake River. [In 2008 and 2009,] we looked forward and said, "Let's just buy development rights so we can develop the wind when customers need it."

We bought rights for 1250 megawatts of wind and are currently developing 343. Turbine prices and construction costs are lower, and we took advantage of a stimulus grant from the Treasury.

All that flows through to our customers. We can build the rest of that facility when it's opportune, but we don't have to.

Q: Do you have an electric car?

A: My garage is wired for it, but it's so narrow and up a hill that I'd get in an accident every time I backed out. We don't park any car in that garage.

Melissa Allison
In Person: Kimberly Harris, CEO of Puget Sound Energy
Seattle Times, July 10, 2011

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