International Women’s Day: Spotlight on a Texas Clean Energy Leader

Center: Debbie Kimberly, Vice President for Customer Energy Solutions at Austin Energy.

In honor of this year’s International Women’s Day we wanted to highlight a clean energy leader in Texas, and we didn’t have to go far from Environmental Defense Fund’s Austin office.

Debbie Kimberly is the Vice President for Customer Energy Solutions at Austin Energy (AE), the municipally-owned electric utility for the City of Austin. Her division is responsible for some of the utility’s clean energy portfolio, including energy efficiency, demand response (a tool that rewards people and businesses for using less electricity when the grid is stressed), and solar initiatives.

Debbie came to AE just over four years ago from an illustrious run at Arizona’s Salt River Project – the electric utility that serves the Phoenix area. I recently interviewed her about her leadership in Texas’ clean energy space.

Q: With women serving as nearly half of the executive team, AE’s significant female representation is unique. How do you think that affects the way AE operates?

A: It was one of the things that really struck me when I interviewed with the company, and more broadly, I was attracted by the diversity of the executive team. In my experience, that diversity adds value to the decisions a company makes and directly translates into the service you provide your diverse customers. At Salt River Project, we conducted extensive customer research and found that in most of the residential homes we served, a woman was the decision maker when it came to choice of electric price plan, energy efficiency offering, etc. So, we took that into consideration in our messaging and marketing plans.

Q: What was one of the first steps you took when you joined AE?

A: We changed the name of the group [from Distributed Energy Services] to Customer Energy Solutions – to orient the focus first on the customer, and second on the array of solutions that can meet customers’ needs.

Q: Austin is the fastest-growing city in the country. How does your role ensure we meet growing electricity demand?

A: Our efforts have been essential in meeting energy and demand. A recent Energy Information Administration shows that Austin has the lowest residential [electricity] consumption and lowest bills for the top 10 utilities in ERCOT [the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which serves roughly 90 percent of the state]. That’s a function of 30-plus years of commitment to conservation and demand management. And we do this with top tier reliability. It’s important to have a portfolio of offerings, and an awareness of customer needs.

We’ve launched pilots, such as our low-income multi-family program.

A big challenge that we face is that more than 50 percent of our residential customers and almost all of our commercial customers are renters, so we need to design programs that can reach both the tenant and the property owner – in a city where vacancy rates tend to be very low. We’ve launched pilots, such as our low-income multi-family program, and changed some of our delivery approaches [to make it easier] for customers to save energy and money.

Q: Because of the energy-water nexus, do you see a role for integrating water more closely with some of the components of your portfolio (e.g. energy efficiency)?

A: Absolutely. When we look at our energy efficiency portfolio offerings, we consider the water savings associated with those measures. The same is true for our solar and wind resources.

We also partner with Austin Water extensively – from a programmatic basis. For example, last year we weatherized 778 homes and all of those homes received low-flow showerheads and faucet aerators. Our AE Green Building programs rate thousands of high performance commercial and residential properties every year – these properties are built to very high levels of energy and water efficiency and divert waste from landfills.

Q: Looking to the future, what are you most excited about in your portfolio?

A: I can’t think of a time where there was more to be excited about. Technology is transforming at a remarkable pace, and this is enabling changes I would have never envisioned years ago. A few nights ago I told Alexa to adjust the temperature on my smart thermostat – how cool is that?! I used to have to pull out the instructions twice a year to change the settings on my not-so-smart programmable thermostat.

We’re seeing declining prices in solar, growth in electric vehicles [EV], and I’d love to see increased electric transportation options for all citizens – not just those who can afford to buy an EV.

I’d hope to inspire the next generation of leaders to seek out opportunities in this business.

Q: How would you operate in an ideal scenario?

A: I’d be out meeting with customers (not in an office or meetings). I’d put in place those systems that make it easier for a customer to self-serve or talk to an energy concierge. I’d go out to the field and listen to employees. And I’d swing by a grade school, a high school, Austin Community College, and University of Texas on my way home and hope to inspire the next generation of leaders to seek out opportunities in this business.

Q: How do you engage, encourage, and inspire young women to enter this field? What would you say to a young woman who’s interested in the sector, but doesn’t know where to start?

A: Over the years, I’ve learned my share of lessons. When I started in the business almost 35 years ago, there was only one woman executive, and I don’t recall knowing any women engineers. I aspired to become an executive despite not being an engineer, [and] tried to soak up as much knowledge about different parts of the business.

Do your research, connect with people – online or in person; don’t be afraid to ask questions and seek out a trusted advisor (or two or three).

I am by nature a shy person. But, I volunteered for assignments, and was fortunate to have male mentors who took me out in the field – including on turbine decks and stacks –because they knew I wanted to learn.

I did work really hard, and I learned that you can often learn more from your mistakes. I learned to be myself – that was one of the earliest lessons in my management career. Today, there are so many more resources for any young person (now I’m really dating myself). Do your research, connect with people – online or in person; don’t be afraid to ask questions and seek out a trusted advisor (or two or three). Recognize that your career path isn’t always straight (mine sure wasn’t) but that’s a good thing. Be patient (I’m still working on that one) and keep your focus on the long game.

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