ST. PETERSBURG — Duke Energy Florida is under new leadership, and president Melissa Seixas is bringing with her a local focus.
Seixas is a 34-year veteran of energy companies in the Tampa Bay area stretching back to Florida Power Co. She began in the drafting department and rose through the ranks to become Duke Energy’s vice president of government and community relations before she was appointed to her current role.
Seixas, 55, recently met with the Tampa Bay Times’ editorial board to talk about her vision for the company, diversity and the effects of the pandemic. The interview has been edited for length.
What are your priorities for Duke Energy?
The four priorities that I have moving forward really are about, No. 1, generating cleaner, greener energy. The second piece is modernizing our grid, and that’s both strengthening the resiliency but also making it safer, more secure. The other piece is how we engage our stakeholders. Those stakeholders are our customers and those stakeholders are business leaders, they are large customers, they are organizations that are helping to push us and work with us, more importantly, on how we achieve that greener energy future. And then the fourth one, of course, is just a really engaged workforce, which you all know as we sit here on Zoom today, that it’s a a more challenging environment as far as engagement. And as (customers) have told us, because we asked when we engage them, they want reliability, resiliency, greener (energy), they want security and they want affordability. So we are in an execution phase really delivering on our results.
What does it mean when you say Duke Energy will be upgrading the grid?
In large part that means resiliency and reliability and increasing security of the grid. An example of that would be substation flood mitigation. That could include poles that withstand higher winds. We use data to identify locations where maybe historically we have had problems with vegetation management and overhead (lines). But a big part of it is also talking with our customers and letting them know what we’re doing. We don’t want our customers to wake up on a Tuesday morning and see a fleet of trucks in their neighborhood and not know what is happening.
During the pandemic, Duke Energy has incurred about $10.2 million in “bad debt” from unpaid customer bills and fees. What is your plan for that?
Continuing to work with our customers. And these deferred payment arrangements (for customers struggling with their bills), as I have mentioned, are much longer than we typically have had in the past...some are over 12 months. Our goal is to be able to work with these customers to collect what’s due so that we can avoid having those dollars absorbed from our other customers.
If Duke Energy is unable to do that, will the company file for permission to collect the unpaid amount from the entire rate base?
We’ll have to evaluate that. But we really are committed to working with our customers on this, and I would say for the most part customers understand. They’ve used (the payment plans). What they have really wanted is flexibility, and that we are working with them on.
What do you anticipate over the next 10 years for storage where solar power is concerned?
We entered an agreement with the Florida Public Service Commission, which includes (the company’s) storm protection plan. A crown jewel of this (plan) is around solar. Part of what we’re also looking at is continuing to create pilot (research and development) locations, much like we have at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg with the solar on top of the garage and the battery underneath. So battery will continue to be a big part of that.
Your two predecessors left after fairly short stints in the position. Will you do the same?
While the leadership has changed, the commitment has not. I’ve spent my entire career here at Duke Energy, and I think it was just timing of opportunities the for previous leaders. I started as a part-time draftsperson in the 1980s. I plan to be around for a while.
How will you approach diversity at Duke Energy?
We have partnered with St. Petersburg College and Pinellas County Urban league and a few other companies (to create) a lineworker program here in St. Petersburg at the AllState (Center) that will train lineworkers much like we would train them internally. It is targeted at diverse candidates. We want to be able to hire people from this area that grew up here, that want to stay here, that are African American, Hispanic. But they are representative of a minority that will have an opportunity with us.
Across the enterprise we are using everything from data to very candid conversations with our employees in small groups to understand their place in the company, if they’ve ever faced challenges, if they see opportunities. We really wanted to hear what our community leaders hear about how Duke shows up externally in the community, but also how we can increase the satisfaction of our customers of color. We’re opening an open-ended question, which is what can Duke do better or differently do increase that satisfaction and trust?