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Racial justice, climate-related disasters cited as top concerns by utility execs

U.S. electric utility executives had no shortage of issues to point to when asked to list their top concerns during an annual gathering hosted by the industry's investor-owned utility trade group.

Held virtually amid the COVID-19 public health crisis, the Edison Electric Institute's annual leadership summit was convened this year as blackout-triggering wildfires have already burned a record number of acres across the U.S. West and nationwide protests continue over racial injustice.

The killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died in Minneapolis this summer after a white police officer kneeled on his neck for more than 8 minutes, was a tragedy that deeply affected Xcel Energy Inc., said Ben Fowke, chairman and CEO of the Minneapolis-based utility.

"It impacted me very personally, as I'm sure it did many of our members," Fowke, who was recently elected chairman of EEI's board of directors, said Sept. 10. "We need to be there for our communities, and there are things we can double down on to make a real difference." But Fowke also noted that "there are no quick fixes" for systemic racism.

DTE Energy Co. Executive Chairman Gerard Anderson pointed to the company's tree-trimming training program at a prison in Jackson County, Mich., and education investments in inner-city Detroit as examples of programs that can benefit the communities that utilities serve.

Anderson noted that while the Great Recession hurt high- and low-wage earners alike, the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has been primarily concentrated among low-wage earners and racial minorities. "The one observation I have is we're all going to have a challenge in front of us to reach into those low-wage and underserved communities because this crisis has really hit those hard," Anderson said.

Edison International President and CEO Pedro Pizarro predicted that climate change-driven wildfires will increasingly challenge companies like subsidiary Southern California Edison Co. as utilities seek to rapidly decarbonize their generating fleets.

Pizarro rejected the notion that an increasing number of renewable generating resources are responsible for the first rolling blackouts California has seen in two decades. But Pizarro added that the state's rapidly changing grid conditions will likely force California and other states to revisit their system planning criteria.

"We believe that this will cause all of us to revisit our planning reserve margin criteria for the long run because, with a more evolved system and a system that has more intermittent resources, we need a little bit more safety margin there," Pizarro said. "There are definitely some changes to come out of this, but it should not be viewed as a reason to step away from the clean energy transition."

Hardening the nation's electric grid against a growing number of natural disasters will continue to require publicly making a case for further investments, said Warner Baxter, Ameren Corporation's chairman, president and CEO.

"This is not an area we can let up on," Baxter said. "The grid is consistently aging, customers' expectations continue to go higher, so we need to be out there very proactively as an industry, as companies, as leaders, explaining why this is so important to key stakeholders."

Picking up on that point, Exelon Corporation President and CEO Chris Crane noted that utility-led jobs training programs can help fill a void in low-income communities with underperforming school districts.

"All the work that companies are doing to create infrastructure jobs and training programs to give people an opportunity to change their lives and fundamentally change generations … it's a point that may be lost in the translation of a rate case," Crane said.