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Special Edition: "Thinking Globally and Acting Locally via the FlexPOWER Bundle" with Paula Gold-Williams, CEO CPS Energy - [an Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast]

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The ‘Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast’ features conversations with thought leaders in the utility sector. Each two weeks we’ll connect with an Energy Central Power Industry Network...

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  • Feb 16, 2021 1:15 pm GMT
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In this next entry into our leadership series, highlighting the invaluable insights and forward-looking initiatives being put forth by utility CEOs, we welcome to the podcast Paula-Gold Williams, CEO of CPS Energy. As head of the largest municipally owned energy utility, Paula shares insights in how she and her team have been working to bring clean, Reliable power generation to the San Antonio community, even amidst the unexpected challenges that the COVID pandemic has thrust upon them. Specifically via CPS Energy’s Flexible Path strategy, the utility is looking at how to most thoughtfully discover, explore, and implement new power generation in the coming years, seeking input from innovators and partners across the sector to replace the utility’s aging generation capacity with new, cleaner generation.

Paula joins Matt Chester, Community Manager of Energy Central, and Audra Drazga, the VP of the Power Industry Network, to share updates on this exciting new initiative, discuss how it fits into CPS Energy’s short- and long-term plans, and reflects on how the company was able to keep People First amid the challenges brought about by the last year.

A special thanks goes to CPS Energy for supporting this edition of the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast.

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Key Links:

Paula Gold-Williams’s Energy Central Profile: https://energycentral.com/member/profile/paula-gold-williams  

CPS Energy Launches Global FlexPOWER Bundle Request For Proposal to Bring Cleaner, Greener Energy to San Antonio, Texas: https://energycentral.com/c/ee/cps-energy-launches-global-flexpower-bundlesm-request-proposal-bring-cleaner

 

TRANSCRIPT

Matt Chester:

Hello, and welcome to the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast. This week's episode is part of our leadership series where we take you into the C-suite of our nation's utilities. Our honored guest today is Paula Gold-Williams, CEO of San Antonio-based CPS energy. The nation's largest municipally owned, fully integrated electric and gas utility. My name is Matt Chester, Energy Central's community manager and I'll be hosting today's episode. With such a high profile guest, I had to pull in the big guns with me today. So joining me for this special episode is Energy Central's VP of the Power Industry Network, Audra Drazga. Audra, are you excited for today's guest?

Audra Drazga:

Yes. I have to laugh at the fact that you called me the big guns, but I wanted to let you know I'm excited to speak with Paula today and learn more about how she is leading the way to achieving carbon neutrality and to learn more about CPS's FlexPOWER Bundle.

Matt Chester:

Perfect. Well, now that we're into February 2021, we're witnessing significant steps from the Biden administration addressing the vaccine rollout, programs to stimulate the economy and workforce and considerable attention in his first month to address climate and the energy industry. At the intersection of those big themes the United States will once again be signer of the Paris Climate Agreement, reinforcing the nation's commitment towards action against climate change and achieving carbon neutrality.

Matt Chester:

This commitment will undoubtedly frame many of the conversations in the utility sector for years to come. And our guest today is already making great strides towards full carbon neutrality by 2050. Today, we'll have the chance to discuss what CPS energy is doing in their efforts in tandem with the city of San Antonio's climate action and adaptation plan. And refreshingly the commitment being put forth by CPS energy isn't just a matter of broad proclamations, but instead we will hear from Paula how CPS energy is walking the walk. In particular, CPS energy recently launched the FlexPOWER Bundle initiative.

Matt Chester:

The FlexPOWER Bundle initiative is setting an example as just one part of the overarching Flexible Path which aims to replace the utilities aging generation capacity with new cleaner generation. I'm excited to learn about the work Paula is accomplishing in one of America's most charming and historic cities, San Antonio. But before we introduce our guests and dive into our discussion, I'd like to thank CPS Energy for making this episode possible today.

Matt Chester:

As we'll hear CPS Energy is thinking globally but acting locally. CPS Energy's Flexible Path is a strategic approach to thoughtfully discover, explore and implement new power generation and solutions over the next 20 years and beyond for San Antonio, the seventh-largest city in the country. It is their overarching strategy to transform their utility with lower and non-emitting energy resources to serve the growing San Antonio metropolitan service area. You can find more information by visiting them at cpsenergy.com.

Matt Chester:

Today on the podcast, we're proud to be hosting president and CEO of CPS Energy, Paula Gold-Williams. Paula is the nation's only African-American female energy CEO, and she took the helm of CPS energy, the nation's largest municipally-owned fully integrated electric and gas utility in November 2015. Before holding this position, Paula contributed towards the growth of CPS energy for 16 years, serving as the executive vice president of financial and administrative services as well as chief financial officer and treasurer.

Matt Chester:

Throughout her career, Paula has racked up numerous impressive achievements. She has her MBA and her CPA and is a charted global management accountant. As a part of Energy Central, Paula recently shared her utilities plans of the new FlexPOWER Bundle initiative and how CPS Energy is working to ensure round the clock energy reliability for the San Antonio community with an eye towards a carbon-neutral future. This is such a rich topic, so let's not wait any longer. Paula Gold-Williams, welcome to today's episode of Energy Central's Power Perspectives Podcast.

Paula Gold-Williams:

Well, Matt and Audra thank you so much for the opportunity to talk to your listeners. And I want to very much think Energy Central for really always providing that industry knowledge and really helping us keep pace and keep tabs on each other how we're making progress. So it is a pleasure for me to talk in person with you all today. And I look forward to getting started.

Matt Chester:

I'd love to hear it, thanks for that. So like I said, I'm excited to dig into the topic of your article and these new initiatives. So, let's just dive right in. Can you start by explaining what is the FlexPOWER Bundle?

Paula Gold-Williams:

Yeah, absolutely. I will say that it's an initiative under another big initiative. So our biggest initiative originated in 2017 whereas I was looking at these industry trends, the whole discussion about disruption and distributed energy. And we saw that wind and solar, the trends were improving in terms of the cost and the performance of the technology. I thought then that we needed to do something very different.

Paula Gold-Williams:

With CPS Energy being in business for 160 years, we're really good at developing and building power plants, operating them and then decommissioning them. And we also were really good for planning for them and figuring out when to put the next base-load fossil fuel plant in play so that it could accommodate growth. But in 2017, I said, "Look, if technology is going to change, we have to think differently. And we have to be much more open to innovation and make sure that we're thinking about doing things maybe even very extremely different than when we had to be before." And simplistically, it came out as we just needed to be flexible.

Paula Gold-Williams:

And that flexibility stopped us again from just being raw in our practices and checking off the list. As we progress through that, we had done a lot of amazing things. We've been doing wind in Texas for 20 years, we're number two in Texas in wind. And we're number one in Texas in solar and number five in the nation. And that progress was always happening and we had a portfolio of things that we did under our energy efficiency and conservation program. But the point is you still also need to look at where you are.

Paula Gold-Williams:

We have five aging gas-steam units, and we needed to think about in that replacement, bringing it up under the Flexible Path strategy and what we came out is an initiative. So those plants are older, they run primarily in the summer. They run more like peaking capacity, optimized capacity. They don't run in the spring and the fall. So when we thought about it, it was an easy thing to say. "What if when we went to go retire those plants instead of a one for one gas to gas conversion," that we said, "Let's think about what we're really trying to do in terms of decarbonization."

Paula Gold-Williams:

And so now we're starting the pathway with this bundle that is up to 900 megawatts of solar, up to 50 megawatts of fast response battery storage, and up to 500 megawatts of firming capacity. Solar gives us environmental benefits. The batteries give us the resiliency we need in improving our systems and the firming capacity gives us the reliability that we have. And when we bundled them all together, we're able to make sure that we're looking at it to do it in the most affordable way possible. It doesn't mean that every single technology has to be bottom line the cheapest. It means that the value that you give has to be able to leverage all of the components and again, give the best value to the communities. So that's the essence of the FlexPOWER Bundle.

Audra Drazga:

Paula, that sounds really interesting. Knowing some of the priorities of the utility professionals who are members of the Energy Central community. I wanted to ask for our listeners in San Antonio and other communities where the utility is practically going cold Turkey on dispatchable carbon generation. What does this mean for the Holy Trinity of sustainability, reliability, and affordability?

Paula Gold-Williams:

Well, I think what we believe and Matt captured quite a few of our high points, right? That we're thinking globally and acting locally. When we think about that, we really believe that it is about what the electrons really are and how do we make these substantial changes. It matters where you're coming from. And so we believe that your journey of where you are today will guide you. But ultimately what we're doing is saying, "Okay, if we have a pretty diverse portfolio of plants today, how do we take that tried and true element of our generation and blend in these new components." On top of that, you touched on some key perspectives. I would tell you that we restructured all of that into six primary pillars. So again, it's everything we need to do has to go through these imbalances and that's what we're trying to do with this FlexPOWER Bundle.

Paula Gold-Williams:

We're making sure that we're looking at customer affordability, that's a major pillar, and there are six of them, customer affordability, reliability, resilience, safety, security and environmental responsibility. We think when you look at it that way and cross them and then say the point is to be imbalanced as much as possible. How do you create a win-win-win? Win from the utility so that we can be viable and provide service that customers really deserve and expect.

Paula Gold-Williams:

A win in terms of partners that are going to help us ultimately do the right thing for the community. And of course, a win for the customer themselves. People really, really want us to solve these problems collaboratively and they need to feel like we're doing imbalance. I don't think you can have or you could. Some people as you say are solving it for one of those, we believe you got to solve for all of those to make really a thoughtful transition. Again, that is something that protects your customers, but they know you're directionally going in the right place and you're willing to tell them how you're doing it every step of the way.

Matt Chester:

Absolutely. And looking at those six pillars you mentioned that are guiding you, CPS Energy is in fact relentlessly striving towards lowering San Antonio's carbon footprint and showing progress and achievements that you mentioned earlier, like being ranked first in the state and fifth in the country for solar capacity. So I'm wondering with that lens, can you talk a little bit more about the Flexible Path strategy that you brought up earlier? How does that push forward towards the utility's long-term goals?

Paula Gold-Williams:

Well, absolutely. There's nothing about it that lends itself the snapping fingers and making easy decisions. As a matter of fact, the point is the way that we operate the company is we consider the assets actually belonging to the community, to the customers and then we in fact run them. So when we have a plant for example, that we own, we're saying, well, just like you have a house, you don't just walk away from your house. You figure out what's the best way to care for the house you have. If you want a different house, you need to do a whole process that makes sure that you either close or sell the asset that you have and you move into something new.

Paula Gold-Williams:

And so we're constantly trying to explain that from where we are. Now, I will say as lovely as it sounds. If there complications, we built one of the last coal unit in the nation. Now, it has grubbers and FCR, it's well run. But it is a solid energy provider from the city of San Antonio and for the State of Texas. We comprise about 7% of the energy for the state, but we contribute about 12 to 13% of the reserve margin for the state. 7% for the city and about 12 to 13% for the state.

Paula Gold-Williams:

So from that standpoint, it's tough because we're looking at this, the latest power plant. We actually have two, we closed two older coal units 15 years early in our quest back in 2018, but we have these other assets. It's not though just about the dollars. The dollars are substantial, we have over a billion dollars of asset value and over a billion dollars of debt. It is again, how do you transition that to make it affordable in the choices and how do you prioritize the gas steam units that I talked about earlier.

Paula Gold-Williams:

So figuring out the velocity of that change. And again, talking to the community about, "I know we made this investment, but now the world has changed. Now we have a different perspective. We're more educated about the implications to the environment and what can we do. But I have one more complexity." Our communities like everyone else is going through COVID and we already had income challenges. So it's incumbent upon us to be really analytical about it, think about options. Think about that all under the process of communicating over and over again, about what we know and what we're learning and bringing that together along with what people's preferences are.

Paula Gold-Williams:

It's a huge balancing game, but again, I still believe the more that we can outreach to the community and explain why we are here where we are and what our potential options are in the future. I think we're going to come up with the right answers, all for the goal to ultimately get to true decarbonization and alignment with the Paris accord and if we do it well to do it earlier than 2050.

Matt Chester:

Absolutely, and that's fascinating. It really shows the various considerations you have to juggle in your role. And I know we'll get back to the COVID topic in a bit, but first we also understand you have significant efforts around conservation. The save for tomorrow energy plan or step is an award-winning energy efficiency and conservation program. Share with our listeners an overview of this program and its relationship to the flex path strategy and what's next for flex step.

Paula Gold-Williams:

Absolutely. So this interesting thing about our program that we started back in 2008, like everybody else starts out with low-hanging fruit. We started out with we're going to move from CFL light bulbs and ultimately get to LED light bulbs. That was a big deal at the very beginning, but now it's very much into distributed energy, solar rooftops, the main response activity it's grown that we've built a really robust portfolio that does a lot of things. It goes after reducing the amount of megawatts needed at our peak, which is extremely important. But we also took our whole portfolio and made sure that every income bracket had something that was included in the plan that people just weren't relegated to a single choice or relegated to a choice that wasn't really in their interest. So for example, the weatherization program that we have is usually popular in our community.

Paula Gold-Williams:

The more, the more we can do for homes and make them more efficient on the inside and help people conserve from their energy. Then those types of things resonate. What the program is, I think more than anything, it manifests as a rebate program that helps. But I think what it really is, is a program that helps people change their thoughts about respecting how they use energy and conserving it and understanding it, and that translates to savings in their pockets.

Paula Gold-Williams:

So it changes behavior that wouldn't otherwise change and would be wasteful. And in turn, we consider our customers partners with us in this journey. Now we've been on this program before I created the Flexible Path strategy, but when I looked at the whole thing, it's like, well, it's already part of it because what it also did, it was so successful. We saved about 800 megawatts of energy at peak, which meant that we didn't have to build another power plant.

Paula Gold-Williams:

So we built the last coal unit. We would've built another unit. Right now we haven't had to do that. We've been keeping our overall demand well-managed while the city has been growing, the State of Texas and the City of San Antonio, like all the other big cities are growing, but we've been able to keep our consumption very much in control and not have to build that capacity. And some people say that's silly because if you build an asset and you put it in your base rates, you get paid for that. But at the same time, if you slow it down, you'll make better decisions because technology is starting to move faster and faster. And so instead of picking a plant today, you'll pick a better plant or a better system or a better technology if you give yourself five more years even. So that's what it does.

Paula Gold-Williams:

And now the next iteration of this program will be called FlexSTEP. And we're about to go out and do a global RFP for tried and true aspects of things we already do under solar, weatherization, and those kinds of things. But we're also going to be looking for what's new in terms of products and services that we can put in the program. Again, it's all part of this big thing where we believe we need a lot of options for customers to match the preferences and really make it all work in a portfolio that is overall very, very effective because it's diversified.

Audra Drazga:

Paula, you talked a little bit earlier about the challenges with COVID and in keeping up with our regular contributors and commenters in the Energy Central community. I know that utilities are all about long-term planning, an area that's been somewhat disrupted over the last year. How have your plans changed due to COVID? Where are you investing? Where are you pivoting and what are you doing differently?

Paula Gold-Williams:

That is a wonderful question and I know everybody goes through it. The biggest area where we're investing is back into people. And what I mean by that is we had great systems, but they were very much reliant on being at work every day, coming through the districts that we have, checking in as a crew, and then going out. We can't do that, even fulfill people who are not behind a desk. And so consciously reaching out to them and hearing from the CEO is one of the biggest investments that we do.

Paula Gold-Williams:

So we were almost constraining ourselves by this physical, we got to be in the same place. There are 3,100 employees in San Antonio. It would take me about two months to get around and touch our employees. But now we have invested in the technology, but we've also done some simple things like I'll send them voice messages and reminders and other leaders in the company will do that.

Paula Gold-Williams:

I will send them Bitmojies and images. I will send serious messages, but I'll also send fun messages. Over the Christmas holiday, the team helped me send out one. We were able to give an extra holiday and they put my favorite movie, a holiday movie out there Elf. And so anything that we can do to keep it fresh, keep it connected, explain what we're doing, telling them why. This is a huge transition when we're talking about decarbonizing our fleet and changing and the breaking technology. And so that I think is probably the biggest investments that we're doing other than doubling down in our communication with our customers.

Paula Gold-Williams:

We never had outbound calls before COVID and the restrictions and the inability to necessarily interact with customers the way we used to and the inability for them to see our faces because of the mask and all those things have changed. So we actually now have a group of our energy advisors, they're amazing. They're calling customers. And we actually incent our employees to talk longer on the phone. So we make sure that if we call, we call and ask how they're doing, we call to see if they know what our programs are. We call and share programs that are under and way.

Paula Gold-Williams:

Different things that can help folks. Everything from the food bank to programs that generally help with family counseling. Anything that we can do, we are doing, which is totally unusual for a utility to do. Matter of fact at first people are saying, "Why is a utility company calling?" But our belief is that we have to help the community get back on its feet. And when it gets back on its feet, we'll recover with them. So this is our focus and sacrificing right now for the greater good for our people. Our first principle is doing the right things for the right reasons. That's where we're investing over and over again through the qualitative aspects of it as much as the quantitative aspects.

Matt Chester:

I love keeping that human side of it in focus, especially with Elf. So staying for another moment on the topic of COVID, since this is our leadership series. I'm curious what the experience was like from your seat. Can you take us into the first few weeks of the pandemic at CPS Energy? What were you thinking? How were you managing such unpredictability? Were there any programs or initiatives that you ended up having to put on pause?

Paula Gold-Williams:

Yeah, look a couple of things. I remember January and February, we were monitoring this thing and we were doing fist bumps before anybody else was. We weren't wearing masks, but we had sanitizer everywhere. And we thought we were somewhat prepared, but as we all know, this thing was much bigger and broader than we thought. And then we didn't know as much, there was a lot more fear about how to contract it. San Antonio became a hotspot very early on, and our trends were just scaring. People didn't want folks from San Antonio coming into their community for a while there.

Paula Gold-Williams:

So there was this element of fear all the way around. We were trying to learn how to keep people safe from the, we were creating all the standards around the PPE, but it was even more difficult. We had to take one service center and shut it down because the first death in San Antonio had a tracing connection back to our workforce. It wasn't our employee, but our employee had a series of connections where they were there. We had to shut down a whole district where we have, again, our great field employees and we have great skilled craft employees.

Paula Gold-Williams:

IBEW and Neighbor are the unions that help us also lead. But one night we had to just shut the whole thing down. And so we sent messages like at 11:30 at night and tell people don't come to work, which normally when we call you, we're telling you to come to work. So the fundamentals of how different things change was amazing. The next morning I come in, I have one of our employees, he sends me an email. He never sends me emails. One of our field employees and he's frustrating. And he's telling me how much he's been disappointed in the management team that we scared him and his family because he didn't know what was going on and he worried. And it just so happened that he had a sick family member and I called him and he was surprised that the CEO would call him.

Paula Gold-Williams:

But I called to apologize, but I also called to talk to him to better understand and make me understand that this situation wasn't just about a health crisis of catching the illness. There was a lot of mental pressure that went along with, again, the not knowing the change of interaction, the speed of which well, sometimes it's the slowness of which information moved and it made us again a whole lot more thoughtful. And it wasn't a big deal for me to tell the employees, "I'm sorry that we're fumbling through this. And let me tell you why, but we're going to get better." So that was the major thing in terms again, of why we got to where we were at the employees.

Paula Gold-Williams:

Relative to the initiatives, I would say one of the biggest things is we had to wait to launch the FlexPOWER Bundle RFP. And that's because again, how do you do that when you're focused on keeping your employees focused so they don't have more susceptibility to injury and accidents? And then how do you take care of customers who are just trying to figure out how to make it, of which you're starting to watch people lose jobs and businesses slow down or close?

Paula Gold-Williams:

It was just a weird thing so we had to put it on deferral. We had planned to launch it in the March timeframe, right as it was getting hot in San Antonio, but we waited till August. And even at that, we decided not to launch the RFP. We launched an RFI. We just didn't even know if we could get global interest. We didn't know if you couldn't travel like you used to. If you couldn't go kick the tires. If you weren't sure what challenges potential partners might be distracted on themselves. What would they do? We were though absolutely amazed because when we did the RFI and we did it for 30 days about, we got about 200 responses and we got them back in 10 different languages.

Paula Gold-Williams:

We did our first international requests for information and interest. And so, it was different, it was slower, but it was more thoughtful and it really put us in position to put the real RFP out. We put that at the very end of November, closed it on the first and now we're in this big evaluation phase and we've gotten hundreds of responses. We've gotten lots of uniqueness and proposals. And I think in total, we probably are approaching about 38,000 megawatts of potential solutions, all different types if you're adding them all up that we can choose from and potentially create multiple partners to expand our network and what we call this new energy economy around energy. And so it was a weird year, but we still had a very accomplished year.

Matt Chester:

That's a great attitude to have. And let's wrap up by looking ahead Paula. As you said, I understand the FlexPOWER Bundle RFP just closed on February 1st. So can you let our listeners know where they can go to read more about the FlexPOWERBundle and keep up with the developments you're making?

Paula Gold-Williams:

Well, easily, just go to our website www.cpsenergy.com and we have a pain there to show that the FlexPOWER Bundle and what we're doing. We have shown how the RFP process was originally done and established there. But yes, we're going to have updates along the way how we're doing. We're hoping as tough as it is, there's just a lot of permutations that we're going to have to evaluate, but we are hoping that it won't be a single entity. We think this is a, again, a consortium that we're creating and we hope that we'll start to actually announce the specific successful projects that we're going after in the late spring, early summer timeframe. But we will have updates on our website along the way.

Matt Chester:

Terrific. Well, Paula, what an honor and pleasure to have you on today's show, thank you for sharing your unique perspective with our listeners. And we're excited to see what comes next for CPS Energy and the San Antonio community. Perhaps we'll have to have a follow-up down the road for you to share all the successes came from this exciting RFP, but thank you for joining us today.

Paula Gold-Williams:

Thank you both.

Matt Chester:

You can always reach Paula through the Energy Central platform where she welcomes your questions and comments. And on behalf of Audra, myself, and the Entire Energy Central team, thanks to everyone for listening today. Once again, I'm Matt Chester, community manager at Energy Central. The most relevant conversations of the utility industry today are happening in the Energy Central community, so we look forward to you joining us and sharing your insights at energycentral.com. And we'll see you next time on the Energy Central Power Perspective Podcast.

 


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As a reminder, the Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast is continually looking for the authors of the most insightful articles and the members with most impactful voices within the Energy Central community and we'll invite them to discuss further so we can dive even deeper into these compelling topics.

This special edition of the Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast was hosted by Matt Chester, Energy Central's Community Manager, and was made possible by CPS Energy.

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Holly  Walker's picture
Holly Walker on Feb 18, 2021

This was an excellent and informative Podcast. ECP’s FlexPower bundle includes similar initiatives as to how Tampa Electric is leading our organization. We always put Safety first. We then put our customers at the top of our priorities with our strong customer service “Listen to what the customers and employees want”. Our senior leadership team regularly communicates and it is flowed throughout the organization by individuals performance coaches. Every employee knows our core values and is briefed on our strategic plan and understands they are a part of making it happen. We handled Covid very similar; proud of our company providing daily Covid updates, providing support for employees. Last year we had a program that all employees could make a donation for us to help our struggling customers pay their utility bill. Instead of having our Christmas party we used this money to give it to a local food bank. Best quote from this Podcast “We have to help the community get back on its feet!”

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Feb 18, 2021

Thanks for sharing, Holly. While 2020 was a mess, it did allow utilities to shine for being the community pillars that they are, highlighting the importance of people and safety above all else. Glad to hear your experience at TECO reflects this same attitude!

Audra Drazga's picture
Audra Drazga on Feb 19, 2021

Holly - thanks for your comment.  I was pleased with this podcast too and am glad you liked it.  Please share with your team :).  We would also love to hear more about what you are doing in the community!  Audra

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