Energy Efficiency, Energy Storage, Executive Insight

How did you get your Start in the Grid?: Kelly Speakes-Backman of ESA

The latest “How did you get your Start in the Grid?” features Kelly  Speakes –Backman, who took the reins of the Energy Storage Association as its CEO this summer. Prior to the ESA job,  Speakes-Backman was senior vice president of policy and research at the Alliance to Save Energy. She also has served as a commissioner with the Maryland Public Service Commission and as clean energy director for the Maryland Energy Association.

For earlier “Start in the Grid” stories, see the bottom of this story.

How did you get your start in the power grid?

“By stroke of luck, really. I was an HVAC/plumbing designer at an engineering firm in Ohio, when I was assigned a thermal storage project and a combined heat and power project. The idea of using energy more efficiently by order of magnitude, and generating right at site was enlightening.

“And so my first foray into energy was with a new US startup, Jenbacher Energiesysteme AG (now owned by GE). They made biogas and natural gas fired reciprocating engines for commercial, industrial and institutional applications. Over the course of 20-plus years, I’ve opened markets in solar, developed renewable energy policy, worked on energy efficiency technologies and polices and now with energy storage. Managing our grid infrastructure and how to generate, use and store energy is one of our greatest challenges —and opportunities. More than 70 percent of all energy used in the US goes into the electric sector, and that is growing significantly. It’s a vital part of our nation’s productivity, security, economic health and dramatically impacts our environment – all important issues to me.

What was the toughest part about that first job?

Beyond being new to the company and new to the energy industry, moving from a focus on the technical aspects to the sales, strategy and marketing of a technical product was a challenge. To understand that it’s not always the quantitative measure that wins the day can be a difficult lesson. Energy storage presents similar challenges as we work to integrate a new, dynamic set of technologies into the broader power sector.

There aren’t many women running utilities yet? Did your gender hinder your rise in any way?

“When I first started in energy, I was often the only woman in the room. But that’s changing. There are increasing opportunities for women to support each other in leadership roles. And there are many role models, particularly in DC – Cheryl Lafleur, of FERC; former FERC Commissioner Colette Honorable; Sue Kelly, CEO of American Public Power Association; Abby Hopper, President and CEO of Solar Energy Industries Association; Julia Hamm, CEO of Smart Electric Power Alliance; and Kateri Callahan, President of the Alliance to Save Energy.

“Outside of Washington, there are notable women leaders in energy and water utilities, including Susan Story, CEO of American Water; Anne Pramaggiore, CEO of ComEd; Mary Powell, CEO of Green Mountain Power; Lynn Good of Duke Energy. On ESA’s board, I look to leaders like Karen Butterfield, CCO at Stem; Jackie DeRosa, VP of Emerging Technologies at Customized Energy Solutions, Ltd; Ann Hoskins, Chief Policy Officer and Audrey Lee, VP of Grid Services at SunRun. Some of the strongest leadership we have in state governments overall comes from women in the regulatory space, including Carla Peterman of California, Judith Judson in Massachusetts, and Lorraine Akiba in Hawaii.

“That said, there’s still a deficiency of women in top roles. According to E&Y 2016 Women in Power and Utilities Index, women hold only 14 percent of senior management roles at the top 200 power and utility companies globally.  This is an important issue, because having a diversity of viewpoints in any industry is critical for positive progress to be made. It’s especially important in energy because as energy production, transport and use becomes more diversified in resources and technologies, we need different experiences and views contributing to our energy ecosystem. Diverse opinions from women, as well as other minorities, will contribute to a more collaborative atmosphere and ultimately a more diversified and modern grid.”

What can women aspiring to be CEOs learn from your experience? Good and bad.

I’m not sure my advice applies only to women, but sometimes we must remind ourselves (1) be bold —voice your informed opinions as part of the vision for our energy future—and don’t be afraid to be wrong.  (2) Even while being collaborative, own your individual successes and fully accept a compliment. Don’t forget to compliment others when it’s earned. (3) Always keep the short-term and long-term goals in focus at the same time, finding the right balance between the two. (4) Have a sense of humor and keep moving. Never, never stand still.

You are now the first-ever CEO of the Energy Storage Association. What intrigued about taking this job?

We are at a pivotal time in the energy industry. Energy storage is at the precipice of tremendous growth, at a time when the electric grid, utilities and commissions are undergoing shifts in business models and policy priorities, and the rate of technology innovations is accelerating. Energy storage has the opportunity to be at the center of this evolution, becoming the hub for a more resilient, efficient, sustainable and affordable grid. What could be more exciting than that, at a time like this? I jumped at the chance to lead ESA as a facilitator of what I think will require a great amount of collaboration among stakeholders in this industry. I’ve worked in many of them—solar, natural gas generation, efficiency, fuel cells, deregulated electricity supply. I hope that experience will support the understanding of all their perspectives.

Tell us a little bit about the “35 by 2025 Vision” and how you think it is achievable?

Energy storage is at the center of a rapidly changing energy ecosystem, and we are on pace to deploy more than 35 GW of energy storage systems by 2025 in the US, launching an innovative industry and transforming the power sector. The ability to cost-effectively and safely store significant amounts of energy has a transformative effect on the way we generate, transmit, and consume energy.

35 GW of energy storage by 2025 will impact all stakeholders on the grid, enabling a more flexible, reliable, and affordable energy network. We see a clear and actionable pathway to achieving this ambitious goal for the industry and are working closely with regulators, legislators, and power sector stakeholders to make energy storage a commonplace energy solution.

What are your favorite hobbies when you’re off the job and why?

I wouldn’t call it a hobby—but I spend a lot of time with my 13-year old twins—taxiing them to their activities. I learn a great deal being in the car with them. As to hobbies, I love to travel to new places because experiencing new cultures and activities is exhilarating, and helps me to continue shifting my perspectives, which I think is helpful in life as well as work. I also like to garden, cook and do DIY projects at home. Working with my hands helps me feel creative and the projects I choose serve a purpose. It’s the geek in me – I love efficiency, even in hobbies.

Previous “Start in the Grid” Stories:

Russ Vanos, Itron

Brian Slocum, ITC

Rick Riley, Entergy Arkansas

Greg Ferree, Souther California Edison