Craig Adams, PECO CEO: nuclear power emergencies and solar subsidies [Q&A] - Technical.ly Philly

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Nov. 19, 2013 12:30 pm

Craig Adams, PECO CEO: nuclear power emergencies and solar subsidies [Q&A]

Read why Craig Adams, the president and CEO of PECO, wants subsidies for solar power to end, how a nuclear power plant emergency shut down changed his leadership style and more.
A view from the PECO building, May 2011.

A view from the PECO building, May 2011.

(Photo by Flickr user civsix, used under a Creative Commons license)

When Craig Adams looks out westward from his offices at 23rd and Market, the president and CEO of energy company PECO says he’s amazed when he thinks about the progress.

“I can look out my window toward University City to see CHOP, Drexel, the University of Pennsylvania, the construction around them,” said Adams, 60. “Not only is that not brain drain anymore, but these communities are growing and prospering. All of that becomes a source to develop the infrastructure and it feeds the business community. We need to be involved in it, but that’s where it’s beginning.”

That’s where Adams starts to describe his view of corporate citizenship, about how his executives all serve on boards and how the company donates some $5 million annually to philanthropic efforts. Look no further than the $1 million grant PECO and the Exelon Foundation gave Widener University last year to grow its STEM programming. There’s something to the idea that if you’re in charge of keeping the lights on, you ought to care about a region’s roots.

Adams is the chairman of the board of 50-year-old professional development nonprofit LEADERSHIP Philadelphia, of which he is a 2000 graduate. [Full Disclosure: This reporter is also a graduate.]

“Craig Adams is the guy you want in your lifeboat,” said Liz Dow, LEADERSHIP’s executive director, “grounded, accountable and trustworthy.”

CEO since March 2012 and COO before then, Adams, a Kentucky native, has the soft and polite small talk of a corporate executive. But he delivers crisply the company line on sustainable energy — the subsidies should stop, he said — and when talking about the weight of running a utility and building infrastructure.

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It helps that he’s spent nearly a quarter century with PECO and its publicly-traded parent company Exelon, which was formed in October 2000 by the merging of PECO and a Chicago company. Exelon, which is based there in Illinois, operates utilities across the country and has one of the largest U.S. nuclear portfolios.

That’s where Adams, who is a trained engineer, learned one of his earliest meaningful professional lessons.

In the 1990s, he was a manager at the Limerick nuclear power plant when a construction team under his watch accidentally dug into an electric duct that caused an emergency shut down.

“You’re young and you see your career flashing across you mind,” he said. “But the care and attention my management put into finding what went wrong, what was next, using ‘positive discipline,’ really changed the type of leader I became.”

Now he manages a corporate subsidiary with 2,300 employees and seems to have the schedule to back it (Technical.ly Philly first reached out in March to schedule an interview that just happened earlier this month).

Below, Adams talks about sustainable energy, managing a utility and what’s the most fun about controlling two million LED lights on top of a skyscraper that has show off digital art before.

Edited for length and clarity.

craig adams headshot

TP: What’s the next big thing for PECO?

CA: From operating a utility, probably the biggest innovations in energy that are coming are associated with smart meters [which will be installed for all 1.6 million PECO customers by the end of next year to accelerate dynamic electric pricing.] and the smart grid.

[In 2009] the former Exelon CEO quoted me with Wall Street Journal: often people say the smart grid is a scratch for whatever your itch is in the energy sector….It can mean different things to different people… For one, think about distribution automation: our ability to have circuits heal very large portions of itself during a storm.

TP: How is being the CEO of a utility different than a traditional for-profit corporation?

CA: It’s a natural monopoly and it’s a very big trust that we’re given by the state to operate that natural monopoly, so we owe an obligation to the customers to do it efficiently and appropriately and to the regulators to know we’re helping their customers.

We can’t be callous, that’s something worth a constant reminder.

TP: Peco has embraced a lot of sustainability efforts, talk a little bit about why.

CA: As we get into the world of the energy efficiency, we didn’t think we’d be credible to offer energy efficiency discounts without doing that ourselves.

Exelon’s 2020 program is aimed to offset our carbon footprint by 2020, and we believe we’re 90 percent toward that goal. It’ll take a year to take the data to make sure our Center City location is LEED certified, but 11 of our buildings have been already.

We also our 45,000 square foot green roof [that absorbs more than 60 percent of the 1.5 million gallons of rainfall that lands annually on the building].

TP: There are real conversations about how growing solar and sustainable energy sources compete with traditional power companies. How do you see solar impacting PECO’s future?

CA: There’s some technical challenges to interact solar and wind into the utility infrastructure of the future.

[Global solar leader] Germany’s peak load is 80 gigawats, [but] they have just 60 gigawats of installed wind. The wind is intermittent, so something has to continue to provide the base consistency [when the wind is exceeded].

We have been politically contrarian in that we believe the subsidies that go to things like wind and solar be discontinued to allow the energy sources to compete on their own merits. Governments need to quit picking the winners. We believe there needs to be a mix of solar and wind — and Exelon owns some solar so it’s in our interest — but we need to operate in a way that’s prudent for the customer. A lot of people want solar on their homes, but they don’t want to be discontinued when the power runs out.

TP: The top of the PECO building at 23rd and Market has had its Crown Lights displays since the Bicentennial on July 4, 1976. That has to be fun.

CA: The most fun I’ve had with them was the timing of taking down the old lights to put up the new [energy efficient LED] ones, for the 2009 July 4th celebration, so we created a fireworks display. It was pretty exciting to reveal.

It was also historical for us, we started with some very rudimentary incandescent lights controlling them.

What’s something we don’t about managing two million LED lights on the top of a 380-foot tall building?

With the new LEDs, we have some mechanical structure issues. If you see the slots between the lights, that’s for all the cooling for the building, and we need to support the air flow.

TP: If you were in charge of Philadelphia for a day, what would your first big initiative be to improve the region?

CA: I live in Blue Bell, so Ii spend a lot of time on the Schuylkill, so I would instantly have additional lanes going each way. I think that would make a lot of people happy…and better connect us.

Read a recent Inquirer interview with Adams here.

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