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Episode #67: 'Inclusively Engaging The Capital Region With Efficiency, EVs, & More' With Will Ellis Of PEPCO [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. At least twice monthly, we connect with an Energy Central Power Industry...

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When it comes to the role that utilities are playing, today sees power providers filling more roles than ever before. Gone are the once-per-month bills being the only touch point a customer had with their utility, and here are the days of social media engagement, energy efficiency programs, advocating for new energy technologies, and more. Utilities really have evolved into a core pillar of the communities in which they serve, and they can only play this part effectively when they are filled with forward-looking leaders who embrace the benefits and challenges these shifting responsibilities bring.

This week's episode of the Power Perspectives Podcast brings to the audience one of those esteemed professionals who is helping out their community in countless ways with their role in the local energy company. Will Ellis is the VP of Government and External Affairs at PEPCO in Washington DC, but that title only begins to describe what he brings to the table. Eager to share the community-benefitting programs he's bringing to his neighbors, the educational efforts that he's championing, and more, Will shares in this wide-ranging conversation with podcast host Jason Price and producer Matt Chester all the ways PEPCO is looking to embrace its role in the wider capital region. Listen in to hear the enthusiastic conversation.

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Thanks to the sponsor of this episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast: West Monroe

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TRANSCRIPT

Jason Price: 

Hello, and welcome to this week's episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives podcast, the show that brings leading minds to discuss the latest challenges and trends transforming and modernizing the energy systems and the utility industry of the future. And a quick thank you to West Monroe, our sponsor of today's show. Now, let's talk energy.

Jason Price: 
I'm your host, Jason Price, Energy Central podcast host and director with West Monroe, coming to you from New York City. With me, as always, from Orlando, Florida is Energy Central producer and community manager, Matt Chester. Matt, today's guest is particularly exciting because he is going to be highlighting how much work utilities do in communities that those not paying attention may not realize. What comes to mind for you when it comes to these community-based roles of power providers?

Matt Chester: 
Absolutely Jason. You know, utility companies have unique and critical roles in their communities. And as the industry continues to evolve, it's becoming evident how much deeper that goes than just providing electricity and just ensuring to customers that they can flip on their light switch and reliably get power. So, local power providers, today they're regularly delivering energy efficiency programs, EV charging infrastructure, programs to ensure affordability to lower income households, demand response pilots, and really so much more.

Jason Price: 
That's right, and fortunately for us, our guest today is knee deep in all these offerings to the rate payers in his utility service area. And given that he's joining us from right outside the nation's capital, he's also going to share with us some of the unique challenges that come with providing reliable energy to the federal government alongside a vast urban region. And today's guest is Will Ellis, VP of Government and External Affairs at Pepco. With an education in electrical engineering, he's brought technical expertise in prowess to his career in the energy and environmental space. Though his coworkers remark that he sure doesn't act like an engineer, he certainly does. Perhaps that's because he spends so much of his time out in the community bringing education about Pepco and energy programs to customers and businesses.

Jason Price: 
In his role, he's led programs in various customer facing initiatives from energy efficiency, to time of use rate pilots, to his current focus on electric vehicle infrastructure and adoption. And through these various efforts, he strives to bring equity and environmental justice to the forefront of these conversations. His work in this area even saw him recognized by Energy Central in our innovation champion special issue. We're excited to pick his brain on these topics today. So Will, welcome to the Energy Essential Power Perspectives podcast.

Will Ellis: 
Thank you, Jason, so much for having me. I'm very excited to be here and discuss with you all what we do as a utility to continue to do the things that our customers expect from us, such as providing safe, reliable, and affordable electricity, but also partnering to enhance and lift up the communities that we serve through creating a stronger, smarter, and cleaner electric grid. So, happy to be here with you today.

Jason Price: 
Yes and we're thrilled to have you as well. So Will, let's get started. As mentioned in the intro, Pepco serves the DC metropolitan area, including notably all the federal land that's home to Congress, the White House, and other critical federal buildings. On top of that, you have rate payers in both the District of Columbia and across the border in Maryland, each with their own regulatory oversight. So I have to start by asking about this unique position of Pepco. How does this all lay into the daily operations for Pepco?

Will Ellis: 
That's a great question and first I'd like to start by just painting the picture of who we are as Pepco. And we are a part of a larger Exelon family of companies and those companies include ComEd in Chicago, BGE in Baltimore, Maryland, PECO in Philadelphia, Delmarva Power in Delaware and along the Eastern shore of Maryland, and Atlantic City Electric in south New Jersey. Pepco, which serves the DC region, including the suburbs of Maryland, which include Prince George and Montgomery County, we serve about one million customers across our footprint. And you know having the pleasure of being the energy provider in the nation's capital and serving such diverse communities is probably one of the more rewarding aspects of my job and requires special levels of attention given the uniqueness of our service territory.

Jason Price: 
So I imagine outside of those unique daily challenges, you have some major events that require special considerations that are unique to the service area, like inaugurations, state of the union addresses, and more. Tell us more about those events. What does it look like for Pepco employees?

Will Ellis: 
Yeah, indeed. We take immense pride in ensuring all of our customers have access to safe and reliable energy, but there are times, as you mentioned, where we have to mobilize to ensure that some of our national events that happen in the district go off without a hitch. I remember one of my former CEOs stating, "Keep the story, the story, and don't let us become the story." A few years back, I remember the Super Bowl lost power, and I was like, "Man, I'm glad that's not us." And you know, the uniqueness of having the White House, the Capitol, and other buildings in our service territory requires us to establish partnerships and open lines of communication so that we're able to prepare, monitor, and respond in a way that the last thing you think about while the president is addressing the nation is how is that building being powered.

Will Ellis: 
So, we are really gracious to be serving the nation's capital and providing safe, reliable electricity, and it sometimes goes lost, but again, as long as we're not the story, then that means we're doing our job and when you see these events happening, such as the state of the union or inaugurations, when they go off without a hitch, that just reinforces the partnerships that we're able to create and the tireless work and the preparations that we do as a company to ensure that we can provide safe and reliable electric service.

Jason Price: 
Sure. Thank you for that. I want to dive into what you're doing locally, but also at the same time, segue into federal policies, energy policies, that are currently going on with the administration. So, do you think the energy efficiency initiatives of the Biden administration will have a material impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and what are they doing differently from past administration attempts, particularly as it relates to your role?

Will Ellis: 
That's a great question. You know, I'll start by saying that this is a critical time in our history as a country. We're dealing with a number of pandemics, right? We all know about the COVID virus pandemic and the impact that it has on the country, but then there's also this climate change pandemic that we're also dealing with at the same time. And I think climate change will be something that this generation is on the hook for creating policies and making real change that the future generation, our kids, will hopefully benefit from and the work that we're doing. And I think the federal administration has one, by stating that they want to reduce emissions nationally by 50% by 2032, and continue to work to a path of zero emissions by 2050. And for me, I believe energy efficiency should be that first choice solution to meet our clean energy goals.

Will Ellis: 
It has been said many times that the cheapest kilowatt is the one never used. You know, what I really like about the plan though is the deliberate focus that the administration has on social equity and creating clean energy careers. I believe we have to prioritize clean energy investments in our communities that have been underserved and those who have traditionally bared the burden of policies that have negatively impacted air quality and living conditions in those communities. You know, many times my CEO has stated we can only be great as the communities we serve. And I believe that this is a truly and amazing opportunity for the country to lean in, listen, partner, as well as innovate to drive equitable change in the communities that have been marginalized for decades and even centuries. So, extremely excited for what the administration has put forth and the opportunities that sit before us.

Jason Price: 
I like that. I like how you framed multiple pandemics and the very true challenges that we face at a number of levels across all borders. But now let's take this from a federal level to more of a local level. So, many would contend at the real action in energy transition, energy efficiency is taking place at the state and local level, and even at the utility level. So, talk to us about some of the initiatives you're working on and what are some of the key programs in these areas taking place at Pepco right now?

Will Ellis: 
Yes. You know, we've recently released our own path to clean, committing to reduce our own emissions within Pepco and the Exelon companies by 50% by the year 2030, as well as continuing to march towards zero emissions by 2050. So, I'm very proud of that commitment. And our climate change commitment really focuses on three pillars; one, reducing our own footprint, so within our substations, our own transformers, and our own transportation fleet as well, so reducing our own footprint, but also programs to help customers reduce their footprint while enabling equitable and affordability and lastly, empowering communities we serve to ensure that all will benefit from a workforce development perspective through enabling a clean energy economy.

Will Ellis: 
So, those are kind of the three initiatives, which I'll talk about a little bit in terms of programs is the things that we're doing to enable our customers to reduce their footprint, enabling equity and affordability. Some of the major initiative is that I'm a part of that you mentioned again include our nationally recognized energy efficiency and demand response programs that I led in my previous role, as well as our newly approved electric vehicle program. Both of these programs are so important at tackling emissions in different ways. The benefits of energy efficiency include not only reducing emissions, but making energy more affordable to our customers, making our customers more comfortable in their homes. Energy efficiency programs enable our small businesses to grow and sustain themselves during challenging times, such as the pandemics, and as well as in other times, reinvest in the communities in which they live, play and work.

Will Ellis: 
In many of our communities, transportation is the largest source of emissions. Our EV public charging program was approved to really jumpstart the adoption of EVs in Maryland, in which the state has a goal of 300,000 zero emission vehicles they want on the road by 2035. So, our Pepco EV smart program not only includes installing chargers in an equitable and meaningful way, but also providing innovative rebates to encourage EV adoption and off peak charging.

Jason Price: 
Who will you champion for efficiency in EV adoption in your service area, but have taken it even a step further to ensure that these programs are being adopted in an inclusive way? What does this look like for Pepco?

Will Ellis: 
You know, despite our longstanding history of implementing programs to increase affordability, reduce emissions, we still have to do more to ensure that all of our, whether it's customers, our employees, our community members, as well as business partners, are able to fully and equitable participate in this transition to clean energy. You know, for example, in EE, we focused on really serving our most vulnerable communities, doing things like translating our marketing materials into multiple languages, partnering with diverse media agencies to ensure that our messages are reaching all of our customers. And lastly, I'll say we also have created a really diverse trade ally contractor group, ensuring our contractors are as diverse as the communities we serve, but also that helps us to enable trust throughout our small business community that spurs adoption of this technology that we haven't seen across all of our different communities that we serve.

Will Ellis: 
You know, for our EV programs, we've partnered with majority of our municipalities throughout Montgomery and Prince George County to ensure that no community is left behind in this transition of clean transportation. And that's just very important for us. We know that in order to spur EV adoption, our communities have to know that, one there is accessibility in charging, and that this is something that is going to truly benefit their community, and a lot of times what we've seen in the early adoption of technology is those communities that can afford it are the ones that take first stake at these particular adoption of technologies. And with our programs, we want to assure that affordability isn't a burden that is preventing communities from these particular benefits.

Will Ellis: 
For instance, we also proposed the multi-family program aimed at installing EV adoption in multi-family properties. We know that one major barrier is having charging facilities for customers who rent, but we know that customers who rent also drive cars and we want to make sure purchasing the EV is accessible to all customers regardless of where they live. And so that's just a few examples of some of the things that we're doing to try to be more deliberate and intentional and driving inclusiveness and equitableness through our programs.

Jason Price: 
Yeah. That's helpful. I want to dig a little further though. You look at climate change and equity through a certain lens, but we're talking about more than just income. So what other factors do you tend to consider and then how do you use those factors to determine, for example, where public EV charging is most needed?

Will Ellis: 
Yes, and I think I touched on it a little bit, but in a lot of our conversations that we have, when we're talking about equity or inclusiveness, the first thing that comes is the barrier of financial adoption. And I think that barrier is a very important barrier and is one that we can quantify and qualify very easily in terms of, do certain communities have the financial means to participate? But that is also not the only reason or not the only lens through which we should try to achieve equity. There's a ton of barriers and I think the important thing about when you try to drive equity within program is really understanding the barriers within multiple communities that we serve.

Will Ellis: 
I spoke earlier, a barrier that we've been solving for is language barriers, and how do we present and how do we ensure that we are leveraging our diverse media suppliers to hit as many communities as possible? So, that's a barrier that a lot of folks have talked about, language barriers. Our immigrant community, a lot of first time US citizens have moved into our service territory and their relationship with energy is very different than say myself, who's a fifth generation Washingtonian. So what are we doing to help bridge that gap of how our customers are used to interacting with energy within their home and where they come from? And so we are looking at creating programs for first time immigrants within our service territory, creating energy coaches so that they are better able to manage their energy needs.

Will Ellis: 
And then as well again, we looked at susceptibility, especially with our EV program. We looked at susceptibility to climate change, as well as greenhouse gas emissions. We know that within a lot of our disadvantaged or underserved communities, there are what we call transportation highways that are cutting right through our communities that are negatively impacting our communities from a GHG standpoint and we want to look at those communities and partner with our agencies and organizations to ensure that, from a fleet transit perspective, we are enabling electric vehicles and electric transit fleet, as well as giving our customers ways to charge, such as ride shares and other opportunities.

Will Ellis: 
So, there's a number of different ways that we're looking at creating equitable solutions, but I think it also starts with hearing from the customers, setting up focus groups, and not just again, presenting solutions, but partnering with those communities to really understand the barriers that exist and how can we then drive those solutions that they're going to own and take advantage of.

Matt Chester: 
Well, I want to jump in there because as I hear you talk about the different communities, different language barriers, economic barriers, people with just different experiences with their energy companies, do you find all these different sort of sub communities that you have to serve, do they different technologies or outreach tools to reach them suitably? Are there some that are more likely to respond if they get direct mail, versus texts, versus emails, versus somebody showing up at their door?

Will Ellis: 
Absolutely and I think that is the tough part of really driving to equitable solution. When we think about the term equity and what it means, it's not just saying that we're providing a way for all customers to participate. And I think that is historically what a lot of companies have done, meaning yes, all customers can participate, but that's not equity, that's equality. Equity to me, at least to me, is really understanding the uniqueness of our diversity of customers and then being deliberate of trying to understand and solve for those barriers. And yes, it's going to take a multiple hybrid of solutions. So, it's going to be direct mail, it's going to be partnering with community based organizations, it's going to be focus groups, right?

Will Ellis: 
Some customers, maybe our millennial customers, some prefer text messaging. And so that, the uniqueness of creating all of these different solutions for different groups, is tough and it's costly, but at the end of the day, that way you ensure that all of our customers are participating in an equitable manner and no one is left behind in this transition that we've seen happen so many times in the past.

Jason Price: 
Another form of equity, Will, is employment, right? Job creation, new training, class of workforce, new skill sets, so supporting local schools. Can you talk a little bit about Pepco's role in supporting the job and business community?

Will Ellis: 
Yeah, absolutely. You know, we feel that creating careers in this new clean energy economy is one of the greatest things that we can do for the communities that we serve. And we believe that getting our communities ready for these jobs, whether it's in the solar energy, whether it's building auditors in an energy efficiency space, or whether it's installing infrastructure in the EV space for all the EV charging stations that are going to come within the next decade. So, all of those provides an opportunity that our communities cannot only be a part of the change, but economically they can also benefit from this change. And so that's been one of our core missions is to ensure that through this change, we're creating jobs.

Will Ellis: 
One of the things I am proud of within the district, we have what we call a DC infrastructure academy where we are getting residents of the District of Columbia ready for these clean energy future jobs, as well as for our infrastructure jobs that we know that are coming as well.

Will Ellis: 
What we don't talk about a lot is the need to adapt the grid. Our grid was initially built over 100 years ago to be one way, starting from a central plant where energy is created down to that last customer. But we know now that's not how energy flows. Through all of the distributed energy resources, solar, battery storage, and even EV, there's going to be this two-way flow of electricity on the grid and we need to now modernize our grid to be able to enable this clean energy transition. And there's going to be a ton of jobs in that space as well. And so, really excited to be partnering with our community partners to really prepare for the jobs of the future that is to come.

Jason Price: 
Great work, Will. We could go on for another hour talking about the great work that you're doing at Pepco. We're going to give you the last word, but we first have our lightning round. This is the part of the conversation where we get to know you a bit more, not just in your utility capacity, but as a person. So we have a couple of quick questions we'd like to ask you. We want to hear a one word or one phrase response. So, are you ready?

Will Ellis: 
Yes.

Jason Price: 
Okay. Favorite way to spend a day off?

Will Ellis: 
Doing STEM kits with my son. I am trying to encourage my son to be an engineer and follow in dad's footsteps, so we just like doing STEM kits and just thinking outside of the box in terms of creating solutions.

Jason Price: 
What's the best ice cream or frozen yogurt topping?

Will Ellis: 
Wow. That's a tough one. I would have to go with Oreo cookies.

Jason Price: 
Ideal dinner guest, if you could pick any celebrity or historical figure?

Will Ellis: 
This is really another tough question. For me, it would have to be Steve Jobs. It would have to be Steve Jobs.

Jason Price: 
If you were given naming rights to the NFL team in Washington, DC, your home team, what would it be?

Will Ellis: 
Oh, that is such a tough answer and one that's being debated right now. I am leaning towards the warriors, so we'll see what it turns out to be, but that would be me, the Washington Warriors.

Jason Price: 
And lastly, what makes you most optimistic?

Will Ellis: 
The conversation around creating more equitable outcomes. For me, growing up in Washington DC, understanding the amount of stress that my family was burdened with in terms of affordability, whether it's just paying their utility bill or creating other opportunities to save. You know, I think we are really to taking a hard look at affordability across our service company, trying to ensure that there are equitable standards of living and there are opportunities for all families to really grow within our nation and economy.

Will Ellis: 
So, really excited to see the progress that we're making there related to energy efficiency, affordability, minimum wage. All of those things will make the middle class stronger and hopefully where, I remember times where I didn't have lights in my home for days at a time because my grandmother couldn't afford to pay the light bill. Those sorts of things that we lived through and we take for granted is things that I think no family should have to deal with on a day to day basis and I think we're making really great strides in that. We still have a way to go, but it is one of my passions in terms of increasing affordability within what we do.

Jason Price: 
Nicely communicated. All right. So thank you for giving us an opportunity to peek behind the curtain and know you a little bit better. Since you've nailed the lightning round, you've earned the last word of the podcast. So knowing that utility leaders, executives, and influencers are listening in, what would be your message to them? What's the most important takeaway from our conversation that you'd like to make them aware of?

Will Ellis: 
Yeah, and thank you Jason and Matt for having me. I will say that achieving equitable outcomes is a very hard thing to do as a utility. The mission, our mission as a utility, is to provide safe, affordable, and reliable electric service to all customers. And within that mission, we use the term all, but to achieve equitable outcomes, we also have to understand that we can't treat all customers the same, and in certain cases, some customers may need more than other customers to achieve that equity that we are pursuing. And so we have to be comfortable with, as a nation, as a utility, as an industry, that we need to provide different solutions to different customers to achieve these equitable outcomes.

Will Ellis: 
And I think that's where it starts. And hopefully we'll see a ton of innovation all related to achieving these equitable outcomes.

Jason Price: 
Well said. And the topics that you've covered are so important and this conversation was incredibly informative. So thank you again for your time and fitting us into your busy schedule. We will certainly stay in touch and perhaps you'll consider coming back in the future for an update on where some of these initiatives and things you discussed that Pepco is working on, and see where you are and have landed maybe a year from now.

Jason Price: 
So, thank you so much for sharing your insight in today's episode of the podcast.

Will Ellis: 
Thank you.

Jason Price: 
You can always reach Will through the Energy Central platform where he welcomes your questions and comments. We also want to give a shout out of thanks to the podcast sponsor that made today's episode possible. Thanks to West Monroe. West Monroe works with the nation's largest electric gas and water utilities in their telecommunication, grid modernization, and digital and workforce transformations. West Monroe brings a multidisciplinary team that blends utility operations and technology expertise to address modernizing aging infrastructure, advisory on transportation electrification, ADMS deployments, data and analytics, and cybersecurity. Once again, I'm your host Jason Price. Plug in and stay fully charged in the discussion by hopping into the community at energycentral.com. See you next time at the Energy Central Power Perspectives podcast.

 


About Energy Central Podcasts

The ‘Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast’ features conversations with thought leaders in the utility sector. At least twice monthly, we connect with an Energy Central Power Industry Network community member to discuss compelling topics that impact professionals who work in the power industry. Some podcasts may be a continuation of thought-provoking posts or discussions started in the community or with an industry leader that is interested in sharing their expertise and doing a deeper dive into hot topics or issues relevant to the industry.

The ‘Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast’ is the premiere podcast series from Energy Central, a Power Industry Network of Communities built specifically for professionals in the electric power industry and a place where professionals can share, learn, and connect in a collaborative environment. Supported by leading industry organizations, our mission is to help global power industry professionals work better. Since 1995, we’ve been a trusted news and information source for professionals working in the power industry, and today our managed communities are a place for lively discussions, debates, and analysis to take place. If you’re not yet a member, visit www.EnergyCentral.com to register for free and join over 200,000 of your peers working in the power industry.

The Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast is hosted by Jason PriceCommunity Ambassador of Energy Central. Jason is a Business Development Executive at West Monroe, working in the East Coast Energy and Utilities Group. Jason is joined in the podcast booth by the producer of the podcast, Matt Chester, who is also the Community Manager of Energy Central and energy analyst/independent consultant in energy policy, markets, and technology.  

If you want to be a guest on a future episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast, let us know! We’ll be pulling guests from our community members who submit engaging content that gets our community talking, and perhaps that next guest will be you! Likewise, if you see an article submitted by a fellow Energy Central community member that you’d like to see broken down in more detail in a conversation, feel free to send us a note to nominate them.  For more information, contact us at community@energycentral.com. Podcast interviews are free for Expert Members and professionals who work for a utility.  We have package offers available for solution providers and vendors. 

Happy listening, and stay tuned for our next episode! Like what you hear, have a suggestion for future episodes, or a question for our guest? Leave a note in the comments below.

All new episodes of the Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast will be posted to the relevant Energy Central community group, but you can also subscribe to the podcast at all the major podcast outlets, including:


Thanks once again to the sponsor of this episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast: West Monroe

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