Mary Powell on Creating Good Energy, a More Distributed Power Grid, and the Art of the Tesla Powerwall

CEO of Green Mountain Power Talks About the Open Workspace That Defines This Renewable Energy Provider

Mary Powell

Mary Powell recharges her batteries in Vermont’s Green Mountains with her husband, Mark Brooks, daughter Ally, and their dogs Mud, Dallas and Bishop. Not pictured: their cats, goats, horses, pig, rabbit and other dogs.

B Magazine interviewed Mary Powell about her open workspace and how this setup has defined the way she’s leading Green Mountain Power to new heights.

Mary Powell and Green Mountain Power At a Glance

Mary Powell: CEO of Green Mountain Power, a Vermont utility that provides 78 percent of the state’s energy and was the world’s first B Corp utility.
Circuitous Path: Powell has an art degree, and she turned down job offers from Green Mountain Power three times before coming to work at the company.
High-Energy Leadership: Her willingness to push boundaries drives her 600-plus employees to promote home solar and wind energy and help create a distributed power grid.

How is your energy reflected in your work?

When I came to Green Mountain Power, the physical space made it hard to collaborate, but now we have an incredibly open workspace. I work at a desk without formal office walls, and our conference room has see-through glass walls. We’ve literally broken down the walls to communication in this 100-year-old utility, and it has enriched our business and our employees’ emotional connectivity.

As a leader, I’ve had success in obsessively focusing on hiring people who have experience in spaces we’re not already in, and bringing in these outside views has been key to our strength and ability to transition.

What is an unexpected impact of your open workplace?

My family has a history of breast cancer, and in 2015, I had what I thought was a prophylactic double mastectomy. I struggled with whether to tell Green Mountain Power employees and, ultimately, decided it would be hypocritical to be secretive after promoting an open workplace at the company.

On one of our weekly company conference calls, I told all 600 employees what was going on. The supportive response was overwhelming, and I was surprised by how many people were moved and strengthened in their own struggles by my openness. In return, I then found comfort in my team when my family found out the removed tissue was indeed cancer positive. I have a T-shirt from my employees that pretty much sums up the shared love. It reads: “Yes, they’re fake. My real ones tried to kill me.”

What brings you joy?

Attitude is a choice, and I choose to be joyful. I talk with the team about choosing love and making that choice every day. The most compelling part of my wiring is my distaste for waste, and that has driven GMP to be a renewable-energy, customer-obsessed utility that’s creating a more distributed power grid that promotes home solar power and wind energy generation. For example, we partnered with Tesla to offer its new Powerwall battery, so customers can store solar-produced or grid-provided power at home. I think that’s definitely cause for joy.

Green Mountain Power is the first utility to offer the Tesla Powerwall. Tell us more about that initiative.

Our customers will be able to purchase the Tesla Powerwall battery outright or lease with no upfront cost. This is a game changer that will help fully leverage home solar to the benefit of all with cost savings, while empowering Vermonters to generate, store and use energy closer to the home. This is community energy at the most local level, helping to increase resiliency for customers while we lower costs through innovations like battery storage.

The Tesla home battery can be paired with small-scale solar such as rooftop panels to store locally-generated energy, or it can be used without solar as a battery to store power from the grid. During a storm or emergency, the battery is able to power essential parts of the home like lights, a refrigerator and furnace. GMP will partner with customers to utilize the batteries during peak energy times to directly lower costs for customers by reducing transmission and capacity costs.

We installed the first Tesla Powerwall earlier this year at our own innovation energy center to make sure we can work through any bugs. Our initial order was for 500, but we have 700 customers on the list.

The Powerwall is beautiful, both as a functional art piece but also because it represents energy independence, and the contribution a household can make to a more distributed power grid and an overall energy transformation.

Photo by Natalie Stultz.

A shorter version of this interview originally appeared as “B Inspired: Creating Good Energy” in the Summer 2016 issue of B Magazine.

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