Meet the solar guru who’s rebuilding Puerto Rico’s grid

Source: Maxine Joselow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, March 19, 2018

Rebuilding a hurricane-ravaged electrical grid isn’t what Julia Hamm had in mind when she began working in the utility sector.

But that’s exactly what Hamm has been tasked with, drawing on her expertise in solar, microgrids and other technologies.

Hamm, president and CEO of the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA), was tapped last fall to help Puerto Rico’s debt-ridden electric utility get its bearings after the monthslong blackouts and destruction wrought by Hurricane Maria.

After visiting the island, Hamm is committed to big improvements.

“Literally, the words that come out of people’s mouths are, ‘Please don’t build it back to the way it was,'” Hamm said during a recent interview. “So I think the people of Puerto Rico really recognize that the system prior to the hurricanes was subpar. It was not ideal. And they really want to ensure that things are done differently.”

Hamm grew up in the “one-stoplight town” of Milford, N.Y. After graduating from Cornell University, she founded Solar Power International, the largest solar trade show and conference in North America. She then took the helm of SEPA, a nonprofit that aims to help the electric power industry transition to clean energy.

The solar guru recently spoke with E&E News about dealing with “wonky people,” being the only woman in a room full of utility executives and explaining Puerto Rico’s electric grid to her two kids.

Jigar Shah, a host of the “Energy Gang” podcast, joked in the latest episode that “we should just give Puerto Rico to Julia Hamm.” What was your reaction to that?

Well, that’s frightening. Listen, I am flattered by the statement. But at the same time, the challenge in front of us is so significant that it is going to take the involvement of many, many experts. While I wish that I was Julia Hamm with a magic wand and I could wave it in Puerto Rico, it is going to take a lot of really smart people working together effectively to figure this all out.

What lessons does Puerto Rico offer for the mainland United States and its own electric utility industry?

Our hope is that if we fast-forward five or 10 years down the road, Puerto Rico really is a model that other parts of the United States can follow. But at this point, I think it’s premature to really determine what might be applicable to the rest of the United States.

The most likely piece, I would guess, is microgrids. I would venture to guess that what’s happening in Puerto Rico is going to significantly accelerate the development of the microgrid market, not only in Puerto Rico but also on the mainland.

Things like microgrids and storage can be wonky. How do you communicate about them to a layperson?

I don’t know whether it’s a good or bad thing, but for SEPA’s work, our audiences tend to be those wonky people. So it’s pretty uncommon for us to need to figure out how to talk about those things in common-person language, other than in our personal lives, when we’re describing what we do at family gatherings or at a friend’s party.

What about communicating about these issues to your kids?

On one of the trips to Puerto Rico, I went with my husband and my two young kids. It was really interesting to hear my kids talk about these issues. You know, they’re not using the words “reliability” and “resiliency.” But they get it.

When we got home the following week, my 8-year-old son had an opportunity to write about his winter break. I thought he was going to write about boogie boarding. But he said, “No, I’m going to write about the hurricane.” He wrote this little note about the blackouts and how the power was out and how it was scary but fun at the same time. So even this little kid’s mind gets it.

And they still talk about it. My daughter is 6, and she keeps asking me, “How are things going with Puerto Rico? Do the people have their power back? What are you doing to help?”

In December, you were named one of 11 members of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority’s Transformation Advisory Council. Why do you see your work on the council as important?

In 2014, SEPA launched an initiative called the 51st State Initiative. It has nothing to do with statehood for Puerto Rico or Washington, D.C. It’s this idea that if there were a brand-new 51st state that was a blank slate, how would experts in the energy industry design things from scratch in order to optimize the system, given what we know today?

Unfortunately, Puerto Rico is about as close as we ever thought we would get to a blank slate. So this is a real opportunity to take a step back and say, “Let’s not just repair things back to the state that they were before the storm. Let’s use this as an opportunity to do things differently.”

Do you consider yourself one of the few female leaders in the electric utility space?

It has changed a lot over the course of my career. So the answer to that question today is no. I feel like there are actually a lot of us now. In the utility industry now, we’ve got a lot of female CEOs. You know, Pacific Gas & Electric has a female CEO. El Paso Electric. Green Mountain Power.

But that has not always been the case. One specific example that always sticks in my mind is that back in 2006 or 2007, we hosted a dinner for utility executives at the Edison Electric Institute annual meeting. We had about 30 executives in the room, and I was the only female. And I was the host. Rather than pretending it wasn’t the case, I just made light of it and said, “Here I am as your host and the only female in the room.” Everybody got a good chuckle out of it, and we moved on.

Any plans to move on from SEPA?

From where I sit, the organization has evolved and changed so much over time as the industry has changed. We’re often able to identify and recognize trends, such as community solar, which was just taking off in the early 2000s. But SEPA is really just at the beginning of reaching its true, full potential in terms of the impact it can have on the industry. So today is just as exciting for me as it was on my first day.

This interview has been edited and condensed.