Yale Insights, Elliot Mainzer, President and CEO, California Independent System Operator,
The career of Elliot Mainzer ’98 has spanned a revolution in the U.S. electrical utility industry, with renewable energy moving from a niche interest to a central focus. We talked to Mainzer, who spent two decades at the Bonneville Power Administration and recently began a role overseeing California’s electrical grid, about the progress he’s witnessed and the challenges that remain in creating a fully sustainable energy network.
How did you start building a career at the intersection point of energy and the environment?
I was at UC Berkeley for college, and I started getting interested in international water issues and energy issues. I did a college semester in Gujarat, India, studying at a small rural development college. We went on a hike one day and I saw the engineer colony for the Sardar Sarovar Dam, which was a huge hydroelectric dam that the World Bank was funding back in the mid 1980s. I didn’t really even have an ability to understand the full context, but I learned about all the dislocation that was being created by that hydroelectric project and all the issues that it raised.
I went back to Cal the next year and became a geography major. One of the first classes I took had a case study on that dam project in India, and it catalyzed a lifelong interest in energy development and both the social and environmental impacts of energy infrastructure. My conclusion was not necessarily that hydroelectricity is a bad thing—we need all different types of resources—but having more distributed and less socially, environmentally impactful energy technology was going to be really essential as part of the future.
After graduation, I went back to India and did some writing about a big protest movement against that project and got further involved with some of the environmental folks concerned about energy and environment, climate, and infrastructure. I knew I needed to get educated. I needed to really understand the markets. I really needed to understand technology and policy. That was the impetus for going to Yale, enrolling in the joint degree program back in the mid ’90s, which was just an absolutely foundational experience for me. I was in school right in the middle of electric energy industry restructuring and the very first inklings of a renewable energy expansion.
I read an article about how Enron was buying wind and solar companies and was going to revolutionize the renewable energy market. I said, “Sign me up. That’s so interesting.”
I joined Enron after graduating from Yale. The first couple years were really fascinating. I basically became a spreadsheet jockey and learned market fundamentals. Then I set up the renewable power desk for Enron to help get that market going. Of course, we know where that ended.
Tell me about your experience at the Bonneville Power Administration and how the issues you faced evolved over your time there.
After Enron went into bankruptcy and I lost my job, I did some significant soul searching. I wanted to go back into the public sector, and I was just full of energy and enthusiasm for the renewable energy markets. I wanted to focus on integrating renewables into the grid and transformation of the power system.
The Bonneville Power Administration is the entity that was established by FDR back in the ’30s to provide rural electrification for the Pacific Northwest and to finance and support the operation of the Columbia River Power System. When I looked at Bonneville, what I saw was an organization with a public purpose mission, and it owned and operated 15,000 miles of transmission and was clearly going to be the gateway to the renewable energy transformation of the Pacific Northwest.
They initially hired me to pick up on the pricing and structuring work I had done at Enron. One of the first projects I took on was developing what’s known as storage and shaping services for wind energy projects. There was a very limited amount of wind on the grid at the time, but the hydro system, notwithstanding its impacts on salmon and the tribes and other problems, was this amazing battery that could be used to sort of store wind energy and then turn it back into a delivered product. We spent a lot of time early on developing storage and shaping services, really leaning in on the development of the wind energy market in the Pacific Northwest.
I did a bunch of different jobs at Bonneville. It was a fabulous place to work. It’s sort of like the big university of public power in the Pacific Northwest. I think I had seven different jobs over my 18 years there. In every role, I’d try to really sink my teeth into the fundamental elements of that role, whether it was pricing or energy trading or customer service engineering or transmission policy or strategic planning. I would really try to absorb as much as I could, but there was always a thread of, how do we transform the grid and make it more friendly for renewable energy and help in the continued fight on climate change?
Having finished up my time there as administrator and CEO for the last seven years, I have this amazing opportunity now to go back down to California, where I grew up, and run the grid in California. It’s really taking everything I’ve learned in terms of energy markets and analysis and trading and transmission and planning and policy, and just getting a chance to work with a bunch of really, really capable and passionate people throughout the Western United States to further accelerate renewable resource development and double down on the fight against climate change
As you start your new role in California, what are the big outstanding issues in the transition to renewable power?
We’re moving from a power system that was traditionally dominated by coal and gas and hydro, which are base-loaded, dispatchable, on-demand resources, and we’re retiring a lot of that capacity and we’re moving more towards wind energy and solar energy and batteries.
For wind and solar, the costs have come down significantly in the last 10 years. We are now seeing a remarkable transformation in the market for energy storage. It’s not something that’s going to be happening 10 years from now; it’s happening right now across the world, a real battery storage revolution. It’s going to be exciting to be a part of that.
At the same time, we’re still playing catch up a little bit to make sure that we have enough dispatchable on-demand machinery in the ground. That’s a physical challenge, just making sure that you get the mix of power resources right so that you can get as much renewable generation on the system as possible and still have some capability when those resources aren’t producing power.
Then there is always a lot of work to do to sort of stitch together the different jurisdictions. You have a lot of different entities that have different responsibilities inside the state for whether it’s planning or procurement and operations. You have to just make sure that those relationships and the coordination between those different jurisdictional entities is as good as it possibly can be.
What do you think the impact of the COVID crisis has been on the momentum toward energy transition and climate change?
The pandemic has been a huge disruption and a negative force in so many ways. The economic impact of so many people losing their jobs and all the small businesses and the social isolation of it, just the fear and the anxiety. At the same time, we’ve seen some interesting changes in patterns of energy usage. You’ve seen a shift in travel patterns. Some of that shift will be permanent. There will be a permanent change in non-essential business travel. The virtual world does have some potential for some efficiency gains in terms of energy and consumption.
Because folks are so acutely tuned in right now to the news and we’re all so connected electronically, there is heightened awareness of what’s going on in the world in terms of the politics, climate, what’s happening in the Western United States. I think that zest and that passion for dealing with energy and environmental issues is escalating. It may not be shared in every quarter and every political office in the country at the moment, but generally, the sense of urgency in the utility and the environmental community and the advocacy community and the regulatory community for addressing these issues is higher than it ever has been.
Have you seen a change among energy professionals over the course of your career about how seriously they take the climate aspect of what they’re doing?
It’s literally a 180. It’s incredible to me to see the change in the basic positioning of the electrical utility industry in this country. The vast majority of the major utilities in this country have embraced—and it’s not just lip service—they have embraced aggressive decarbonization targets. That includes some utilities who traditionally were very, very conservative utilities. I know many of their CEOs, I know their leaders, and it’s genuine. They’re seeing it. They know their customers want change. The constituents want change. The regulators want change. Policy makers want to change. The facts on the ground are showing us that the climate is changing. The pricing curves, the economics, have changed. They can earn solid returns building clean energy infrastructure. Decarbonization is going to be good business for the utility industry. The other thing that’s happened is just a flood of young, intelligent, passionate, creative people into this space, and many of them coming out of Yale SOM and the Forestry School [now the Yale School of the Environment]. The language, the focus, the tools, the techniques, the policy, the people, the practice have all been revolutionized in the last 20 years.
What values do you rely on to guide your decision making?
One important thing throughout my entire time working in the renewable energy market, which of course is filled with passionate advocates, is to try to bring intellectual honesty to what you’re doing. The drive to decarbonization is so, so important. It’s really the calling of our time, and has been an anchor of my professional career. But society also wants reliable and safe and affordable energy. You need to have good data, and you need to make well-informed decisions.
What role has Yale SOM played in your career?
My years at Yale at the Forestry School and at the School of Management were so foundational, not only in terms of content and skill development and approach, but in terms of the relationships and the friendships that I developed. I’m on the phone on a regular basis with the lifelong friends I made at Yale. It’s an experience I absolutely cherish and it was truly formative.
The mission of the school to educate leaders for business and society, and to give them that toolbox to operate at the interface between environment and commerce in the public or the private or nonprofit sector—that mission just resonates so deeply with me. I had such a wonderful experience at Yale. It continues to animate my life 25 years later on a regular basis.