Just in time for hurricane season, Catherine Stempien is about to hit her one-year mark serving as Duke Energy Florida's CEO. Stempien, whose background is in law, is the first woman to lead Duke Energy's Florida arm.
Along with Tampa Electric's CEO Nancy Tower, she is one of two women heading Tampa Bay utilities in an industry typically saturated with men.
Stempien succeeded Harry Sideris in June of last year after overseeing mergers and acquisitions for the utility's parent company in North Carolina. She recently sat down with the Tampa Bay Times' editorial board to talk about diversity in the workplace, lessons from Hurricane Michael and Duke's 2017 settlement agreement with consumer advocates to invest in solar energy and stop charging customers for the never-built Levy County nuclear plant. Responses have been edited for length.
What have you focused on since you took over as CEO?
Hurricanes, which is job No. 1 for us. We understand that's where the customers need us the most. But the second piece is on the execution of our settlement plan. That was to invest $6 billion into our system for the benefit of the customers. I look at our efforts on a couple of different fronts. First would be the grid and the resiliency of our grid. One third of our system is covered by self-healing technology. The circuits can now automatically reroute power when there's an outage. As a result of those upgrades, we've saved 2,000 customer interruptions, about 15 million minutes. We've also built heavier lines. We had to rebuild 34 miles of transmission lines, overhead lines, that were completely flattened (by Hurricane Michael last year). They can now withstand hurricane-force winds. We've also made progress in our meters. We're changing out all of our meters to advanced better technology, and we're at 10 percent done.
With the start of hurricane season upon us, what lessons did you take from Hurricane Michael?
I put our operations into two different camps: One is operational, and the other is customer communications. (Operationally,) I think our increase in our ability to get our customers restored faster has been continually improving. From the communications perspective, I like to think this is where we made the most strides in understanding that our customers' need for information have changed over time. It used to be that hurricanes come and people settle in and realize it will take awhile for the power to come on. Now, within hours we're hearing a need for information from customers. We revamped outage maps so (customers) can zoom in and really see where the particular outages are at any point. We've done a lot on social media, (and) we do text messaging to customers to let them know, 'We know you have an outage' (and) let them know their estimated outage time.
Vegetation maintenance was an issue for Duke during Hurricane Irma in 2017. How does that compare going into this hurricane season?
We are doing a lot of tree trimming and vegetation management. We have three- and five- year cycles depending on what kind of (power) line it is, and we make sure that we are keeping in compliance with those guidelines. What we've done is built something called an enterprise distribution health system. It captures different pieces of information about a customer — reliability statistics, vegetation management history, customer satisfaction and then overall system health on a circuit. You can (look at) a map like it's a heat map and see which areas of the service territories are 'heating up' as having problems. It's a way to take all that data from the customer experience and overlay it in our service territory to see where we're experiencing problems, and then go fix them.
Duke has some of the highest rates of any Florida utility. Do you see that price gap closing?
We are keenly focused on affordability. I view myself as being a steward of what our customers have given me, and they give us their money. We still have rates that are under the national average, but we always are focused on what we can do to make sure our customers have affordable rates for the service and quality that they're getting. I think it's hard to compare utilities around the state because they're different. Our service territory is very different. It's urban plus rural territory. We have more miles, which means we have more line losses, which means more maintenance, so it's hard to compare those costs exactly.
We've read that diversity in the workplace is a focus of yours. Where does Duke Energy Florida lack in diversity and why?
My flippant remark is that we need more women on the line. It's hard to recruit women to be line people. I think it's because of a combination of factors. Part of what we need to do is get people to think it's a job that women can be as good as men in. (We do that by) getting out there in high schools, community colleges, technical schools and telling people that this a career option. First of all, we have to mirror what our communities are, and that leads to the second issue, which is that you make better decisions when you have a more diverse group around the table. You have to be deliberate about (diversity), and if you're not deliberate about it, it doesn't happen. St. Petersburg has the largest pride event in the state of Florida, and we need to be a part of that. When I came here last year and walked around St. Petersburg, I saw all the rainbow flags at various commercial establishments, and you walk by the corner of Duke Energy and it pretty much looks like a corporate building. This year you'll see banners, and you'll see us celebrating diversity. We have a human resources department, a workforce development department that is focused on seeking diverse applications, (and) employee resource groups that focus on veterans, Latinos, African Americans and women.
How do you feel in term of Duke's reliance on fossil fuels, especially on natural gas?
Overall corporate wide, we have made significant reductions in our carbon footprint. Since 2005, we've reduced 31 percent of our carbon output, and we're on track to get to 40 percent by 2030. We still have two more coal units on the (Crystal River) plant. Those units will eventually retire and they will be replaced. Currently, the date is between 2035-2042. But we're looking hard at whether it makes sense to accelerate the timeline.
Contact Malena Carollo at email@example.com or (727) 892-2249. Follow @malenacarollo.