Sunrun Appoints Mary Powell, Utility Veteran, Chief Executive
Many energy and climate experts believe the United States urgently needs to increase its use of solar energy to combat climate change. Yet electric utilities and companies that install solar panels on rooftops have long disagreed over how this electricity is produced and who should make money from it.
Today, the country’s largest solar roof installer has decided to hire its general manager for the utility industry. The company, Sunrun, said Thursday it has hired Mary Powell, who previously ran Vermont-based Green Mountain Power.
Sunrun said it chose Ms. Powell to help the business expand even further into the types of businesses that until recently were regulated electric utilities like Consolidated Edison in New York and Pacific Gas & Electric in California. Instead of just installing panels on homes, Sunrun tried to become a new kind of energy company that provides solar and storage products to customers while allowing them to sell electricity to the grid.
The appointment indicates that Sunrun and other rooftop solar companies intend to play a larger role in the renewable energy transition that President Biden hopes to accelerate with tens of billions of dollars in new federal spending, including included in the bipartisan infrastructure bill that the Senate is considering. now. Sunrun and Ms Powell have pushed for more investment in rooftop solar power, batteries and other local energy sources, rather than the approach favored by large utilities, who want to build thousands of miles new power lines and large wind and solar farms in remote areas. Locations.
In an interview, Ms Powell, who led Green Mountain when it built Vermont’s largest wind farm and started installing batteries in homes, said she was joining Sunrun because solar power on the roof and other small energy devices could be installed faster than large utility projects that can take a decade or more to build. She also said that too many people in the energy industry were too attached to a system that never envisioned a two-way relationship between utilities and consumers.
“My passion for climate change is why I’m so passionate about this business,” said Ms. Powell, who led Green Mountain for over a decade before leaving in late 2019. “I’ve been working on this issue for 20 years. years. years. It’s so shocking to me that people hold on so tightly to a 100 year old system.
Ms. Powell, who has served on Sunrun’s board of directors since 2018, will replace Sunrun founder Lynn Jurich, who will become executive co-chair.
“It’s very motivated by our two intense feelings that we need to move faster on the climate,” Ms. Jurich said. “Climate change doesn’t wait for us to build large-scale transmission lines.”
Some energy leaders and climate activists have argued that the country needs an “all of the above” approach to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases responsible for climate change. The country needs large and small energy projects, transmission lines and home and business batteries, which can be as small as large televisions and as large as shipping containers. These investments, activists say, must be made quickly as forest fires, heat waves, hurricanes, winter storms and other extreme weather conditions linked to climate change have crippled power grids.
“It’s more important than utilities,” said Pedro J. Pizarro, managing director of Edison International, the parent company of Southern California Edison, in a recent interview. “It’s bigger than an industry.”
Yet utilities and rooftop solar companies are engaged in fierce political battles in state capitals. Many utilities and their allies are calling on regulators and lawmakers in places like California and Florida to lower the rates they pay for electricity produced by rooftop solar panels. Or they are looking to impose new fees on the roof panels.
Utilities argue these changes are necessary because, as more homeowners buy solar panels, fewer people have to share the cost of maintaining the grid. But homeowner groups and solar installers like Sunrun counter that utility-led efforts will reduce the number of people who can afford rooftop panels, which they say cuts emissions and helps lower the cost. electricity for everyone by reducing the need for new transmission lines. and power plants.
“To achieve the necessary emission reductions, solar will need to grow four times faster than we do today,” said Abigail Ross Hopper, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association, in a statement this week. last.
In addition to opposition from utilities, the rooftop solar industry faces other hurdles. The cost of installing solar panels is much higher in the United States than in countries like Australia, in part because obtaining permits from local governments is more onerous here. Many rooftop solar companies, which spend heavily on sales and marketing, are not always profitable.
Sunrun said Thursday it lost $ 41 million in the second quarter, down from $ 14 million a year earlier. Last year, the company acquired Vivint, one of its biggest competitors, extending its lead as the country’s largest rooftop solar installer. But its stock price has fallen in recent months, from around $ 80 in February to around $ 50 now.
Ms Powell will have to convince investors that Sunrun’s plans to expand beyond panel installation will pay off. (Her brother Michael Powell is a reporter for the New York Times.)
Vikram Aggarwal, founder and CEO of EnergySage, a rooftop solar power price comparison service, said Ms. Powell’s experience at Green Mountain could be of use to Sunrun.
“I think Mary Powell is a highly regarded public service leader,” he said. “It’s very consumer-oriented. She knows the climate crisis and everything.
Sunrun recently announced a deal with Ford Motor to make it easy for people to use the electric version of the company’s F-150 pickup truck that will be released next year to power homes during blackouts for 10 days. Such approaches are increasingly popular as power outages and blackouts become more common due to extreme weather conditions and forest fires caused by utility equipment.
Sunrun also wants to expand the use of so-called virtual power plants, which harness the energy produced by rooftop solar panels that is stored in home batteries to support the power grid during times of high demand. Such systems played an important role in the power outages in California last summer.
“This is how customers and businesses move around the world,” said Ms. Powell. “From my point of view, nothing can stop this momentum. “
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