COVERInterviewsPersonalities

The Interview: Power Player

with Janet Reilly

Mary Powell, CEO of Sunrun, a rooftop solar company. | Photo courtesy of Craig Lee
It takes more than a megawatt smile and a sunny disposition to run America’s leading home solar panel and battery storage company. Yet combined with 20 years’ experience in the energy sector and an unbridled passion for saving the planet, Sunrun’s new CEO, Mary Powell, is up for the challenge.

Janet Reilly

Powell was named Sunrun’s chief executive in the summer of 2021 and has sat on its board of directors since 2018. Prior to coming to Sunrun, for 12 years Powell was president and CEO of Green Mountain Power, a utility company that serves more than 75 percent of the state of Vermont, including both residential and business customers. She is credited with advancing Green Mountain Power to be the most progressive and innovative utility in the country.

Powell comes to the helm of Sunrun at a time when a focus on climate change has never been more intense, nor consumers’ desire to control their own energy destiny greater — or more possible. On a recent morning at Sunrun’s corporate headquarters in downtown San Francisco, I sat down with Powell, whose passion for people, our planet and bringing sunshine to the world is admirable — and infectious.

Meet Mary Powell.

As CEO of Green Mountain Power, you were one of just a handful of female CEOs in the investorowned utilities — an industry with fewer than 25 percent women in the workforce. Were there some advantages of being a woman in a such male-dominated industry?

Yes, actually there were. And it wasn’t my first rodeo in that context. I had worked for five years in banking. When I joined the utility space, I thought I knew what it meant to work with all men. … I always felt like an outlier. I don’t say that in a way of feeling bad about it. Actually, it was freeing. If you’re not going to fit in, you don’t have to try to fit in. In so many ways it just helped me be comfortable with who I was. I also was somebody who really attached myself to the outcome I was trying to achieve versus any kind of outcome for myself. Those two traits combined made me comfortable in situations that were uncomfortable.

What drew you to the energy sector?

Nothing drew me to the energy sector [laughs]. Initially, I turned down the job to join Green Mountain Power three times. … Not once, not twice, but three times. And, when I said yes, I literally thought, “Eh, I’ll work there for a year or two.”

Which led to 20 years!

I just didn’t know what an incredible opportunity it was going to be to lead a cultural transformation and lead an environmental transformation and ultimately lead an innovation transformation. It was amazing. Once I was in the energy sector, wanting to do this role [Sunrun CEO] was easy because I fundamentally feel like I’m back on the frontlines combating climate change. And so, yes, this felt like mission-driven work. I’m a missiondriven person.

When you left Green Mountain Power, your intention was to work with your husband, Mark Brooks, on a company you two cofounded, Spot The Dog, which makes reflective vests and dog collars.

Yes, absolutely. And I love that company [Spot The Dog]. We had just been listed as one of Oprah’s favorite things, then [featured on] Good Morning America, so it was on this roll. And I was thinking Mark and I will do this together. And guess what? Mark really didn’t need me. So I quickly went toward the opportunities coming at me in the clean energy space. I was working on some startups on their boards. I was dabbling in different things. Then Sunrun came up and it just felt like one of those things — you had me at hello. I’ve been on the board for a few years. I love the mission. I love the human-centered approach.

Before we get to Sunrun, let’s talk about some of your accomplishments at Green Mountain Power. You combined two utility companies into one — no small feat?

Yep.

You significantly reduced Vermont’s carbon footprint. In 2019, you were voted the best utility executive in the country [by Utility Dive], and your customers gave Green Mountain Power an above 90 percent satisfaction rate. That’s impressive!

The planet and people are my north star. To me, you can’t be as great as I want any organization I’m affiliated with to be if you’re not customer-obsessed, if you’re not employee-obsessed and if you’re not basically creating a culture on a foundation of love and service. … When I interviewed with the CEO, part of why I said no [at first] was that you came into this massive stone lobby with this lone receptionist. Then you had to go up these big stone stairs into not one, but two, private secretaries to get into his private office, which had its own bathroom, its own conference room. I said, “Do you realize you never have to see another human being? That’s not a good thing.”

Sunrun CEO Mary Powell lends a hand on the roof during a customer’s solar install in the Bay Area. | Photo courtesy of Sunrun

Just a bit removed.

Fast-forward to how I led it as the CEO. It was a colorful Costco basically. We gutted a service center. We had big, open exposed ceilings. And I worked at a four-top desktop in a collaborative space with other people. So it was all about moving to a culture that was fast, fun, effective and in love with the customers we served. That proved to be this unstoppable foundation and flywheel for being able to do things that were risky for a utility to do.

You moved from a utility company to a rooftop solar company. Often, those industries are in conflict. A good example of this is the issue of the proposed solar tax here in California.

I think it’s so sad where we’ve allowed ourselves to get. The planet’s on fire and it doesn’t have time for us to be having these mind-numbing debates. Honestly, I feel like the amazing work we did in Vermont was because so much of what I used to talk about was “team Vermont.” We worked hand in hand with folks who were viewed as being like the enemy by the utility. I was like, “Wait a second, we have got to work together. It needs all of us looking forward and coming up with solutions and figuring out how we can move faster, not slower.”

And so it was interesting as I was new to California working here with this debate. In terms of where we are with [a solar tax], I’m really thrilled that the governor and now his new chief regulator are both saying, “Hey, hmm, we need to take a pause here.” I’m hoping that there are really sweeping changes, because as a former utility leader who’s very well-versed in the math that is being used on both sides, I find it an embarrassment. I find it very backward looking and not the kind of energy and drive we need to work together for the future.

Do you think we need to completely rethink how we view the grid? Blow it up, metaphorically of course.

Exactly. I feel like we all know the car goes where the eyes go, right? That’s a famous saying with race car drivers. So if we can all be starting to look forward and embracing and saying, “Wait a second, how do we get to a world where actually we make the grid better by radically embracing this change that customers want?” In Vermont, customers wanted to produce their own energy. Guess what? They wanted to store their own energy. It’s not the utilities’ fault. It is the entire cultural ecosystem of regulated utilities. It is about protect, preserve, defend.

__________________

LIGHTNING ROUND
The biggest regret I have is … I feel like it always ties back to, did I listen to that inner voice? That gut. My biggest regrets are always tied to when there’s too much other noise coming at me and I choose not to listen to my gut.
I’m happiest when … I’m with my daughter. I’m happiest when my daughter’s lying down, we’re watching a show, and she says, “Mom, will you rub my head?
The biggest risk I’ve ever taken is, or was ... When I became CEO and launched an ambitious energy vision building Vermont’s largest wind farm and buying Vermont’s largest utility, all within a short period of time. It was a great example of listening to my gut.
If I had a magic wand, I would … Solve climate change tomorrow.
__________________

Catastrophic storms and natural events can leave people without power for up to weeks in some cases. I have to believe this is a big incentive for people to want to take control of their own energy destiny.

Exactly. And cost increases. From a customer perspective, customers are actually getting more fearful, more insecure. And not knowing what they’re going to have to pay and not knowing if they’re going to have power. I was in L.A. County for Thanksgiving, and [the power was] shut off for two and a half days. There was wind in the forecast, so over 100,000 people went without power. We were lucky because we had Sunrun, I had solar, I had storage. With our systems, life goes on as normal. Which is a beautiful feeling from a sense of security for people.

Huge peace of mind.

And, as you probably know, another thing that is so missed in this debate is using these dated assumptions, like it’s only the wealthy who go solar. That’s just not true. I mean, I’m a boots-on-theground CEO. I’ve been out with customers. I’ve been out with install crews. I’ve been out with our sales folks. We are in people’s first homes. We are in working-class communities all over the country, helping them create a home that’s more resilient and more affordable for them.

How are we making solar energy more accessible for everyone, rather than just the folks who can afford panels?

That is actually one of the reasons I fell in love with Sunrun and Sunrun’s history of innovation. They innovated the financing model for solar [with third-party ownership]: no money down, one easy monthly payment. … So back to this big policy debate at a time when we’re actually at that tipping point where we’re seeing this energy transformation become more accessible and more equitable because it is broadly available in a way that doesn’t require all that big money down.

You’ve talked about a consumer-led revolution to clean energy. Tell me about this.

I believe in utility-scale renewable projects because for major cities, major areas, you need the combination of a robust green grid and distributed technologies. But I was always fascinated with [the fact] we’re really due for technological innovation. So I always felt like the minute we have that, there’s going to be this customer-led revolution. We’ve moved toward having more control, more information, more decision-making capability in our hands. I’m actually hopeful that we’ll continue to see that.

And what will that next evolution be?

I’ll tell you an example that has always been in my head. At Green Mountain, I heard about these engineers that were working on magnetic energy. So I took the then-CEO to Tennessee, and we actually saw this thing and it was cool. It was the size of an old-fashioned air conditioning unit that you might have in your window. And it was using magnetic energy that supposedly could power a house. Now, it never reached commercialization, and every once in a while I Google “magnetic energy” just to see what’s happening. Maybe somebody’s working on it, right? I’m just open to the idea. I think the technologies that are here now to save the planet are solar paired with storage, without a shadow of a doubt. And then I think you see some other exciting things coming down the pike in the future.

What are you most excited about at Sunrun, and what are the biggest challenges?

The biggest challenge is the most exciting part, which is that we have incredible demand for our product. So it’s really, how do we scale to grow as fast as we can to meet the demand? We’re at 3 percent collectively as an industry of market penetration in the U.S. So that means there’s approximately 78 million more homes that are solar ready, so I’m very excited about that. And it’s exciting to see others entering the market because that just accelerates the consumer-led revolution, that people see it out there as a mainstream product. And then I’m super excited about what we’re doing with Ford.

Tell me about that. You can power your house from your truck?

You can power your house from your truck. Isn’t that amazing? We worked on this partnership with them. The truck should be rolling out sometime this spring, in small numbers. We are going to be helping them bring that to Ford customers throughout all 50 states with the bidirectional inverters so they can power their home, if that’s the Ford that they buy. Just like with any EV technology, there are tiers, right? If you buy the best model with the best capability, I hear that you could literally power your house for two weeks if you needed to, from your truck.

After joining the company as CEO last September, Powell visits an install team on Long Island, New York, as part of a national tour to meet her staff. | Photo courtesy of Sunrun

For many of us, climate change seems like an overwhelming issue. What are some small steps that we as individuals can take to make a difference?

One of the things we did at Green Mountain was a carbon challenge, internally. Somebody would talk every week about those small actions they were taking. And it was powerful. For me, I think the biggest things are, of course, if you have the ability in your life to move toward electric vehicle transportation versus fossil. I wouldn’t be in this chair if I didn’t think that if you have the capability to go solar, that’s a wonderful way to do it. Then I think it’s so much about just being conscious, and I think that’s the power we have, it’s the power of humanity. I say to myself, how am I going to bring my values around the environment into my day? And some days it may be just picking up garbage that I see, right? And some days it’s more, everything from trade-offs around how we eat. I think a lot of people get overwhelmed in a world where things can feel so black and white. They can feel so all or nothing, that it’s easy to not take the little actions that can add up. So I’m all about just whatever little action resonates with you, do it.

You mentioned an energy sector career wasn’t an early ambition. Your father, Addison Powell, was an actor. Did you want to follow in his footsteps?

I did, I did. Until I took acting classes. Not once, but twice. I tried. He was on this show called Dark Shadows, which had a cult following. He got so much fan mail. And I went to the set with him, and it was so exciting.

This is in New York?

This was in New York City, yeah. He signed me up for a class at the Herbert Berghof Studio in the Village, known as one of the best, and I went to this class and you had to plan something to do onstage. And I practiced it and I invited my dad to come and I just froze. I mean, I did the thing that I had planned to do, but I was so self-conscious the whole time. I felt so vulnerable. And I really felt like I did a terrible job. And we were walking up to get the subway afterwards and he was quiet. I was quiet. And then I’ll never forget, he goes, “You know, Mary, you have presence.”

How supportive.

Then I took [acting] again in college and it gave me such respect for what he did. And it has helped me to be the leader I want to be, actually. I have to tap into that same kind of excruciating level of vulnerability. I actually think the more vulnerable you can be, the more powerful you can be as a leader.

Do you like living in the Bay Area?

I love it. There’s a lot of good food, and as somebody who grew up in New York, I love that. And the natural beauty and the connection to the work that I get to do, like going up to Point Reyes, walking on the beach and seeing those elephant seals. And then we do a lot of hiking. I can actually hike from where I live, so I do sort of a run/ hike on the trail in the morning. People have been very warm and friendly, and especially where we live, it feels very chill.

There was a lot of chatter in Vermont about your running for office someday. So what do you think?

Well, I never said no, because I’ve called myself the accidental executive, because I’ve done everything I never thought I would. For me it would have to be because I felt there was a void, that I was the right person at the right time. It was so funny because when [Senator Patrick] Leahy announced he’s not going to be running again, all these people reached out. I actually know [Representative] Peter Welch really well, and I think he’ll be amazing. And then there are some awesome women. I would like to see Vermont get a woman to Washington. But, I love what I’m doing here. So, I’m all in and not thinking about that.

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