Nation’s largest grid operator picks CEO

Source: By Rod Kuckro, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, November 20, 2019

The nation’s largest electric grid operator tapped a former senior executive with a power and natural gas competitive supplier to be its next CEO.

Manu Asthana, who was until last December the president of Direct Energy Home in North America, will take over the reins of PJM Interconnection on Jan. 1, the grid operator announced Monday.

PJM oversees the grid and power market that deliver electricity to 65 million customers in 13 states in the Mid-Atlantic and parts of the South and Midwest.

Asthana’s former company, which serves nearly 4 million customers in the U.S., was fined $1.5 million in May by Connecticut regulators for misleading sales and marketing practices.

Direct Energy, owned by Britain’s Centrica PLC, sells electricity and natural gas as an alternative to the local utility or in competition with other nonutility energy providers.

Asthana was chosen by PJM’s board of managers after an “aggressive” — in the words of one board member — search started in June and led by executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles.

He replaces Andy Ott, who left PJM at the end of June after more than three years as president and CEO.

Ott had served in numerous capacities for PJM since joining the organization in 1996.

During Ott’s tenure, PJM had challenges associated with its markets at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and at some state legislatures that acted on policies stepping into PJM’s market functions.

In his role during Direct Energy, Asthana led the company’s retail electricity and home services businesses.

It is unclear from Asthana’s LinkedIn profile what he has done for employment since leaving Direct Energy at the end of 2018.

Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program, slammed PJM’s choice, calling Asthana “not qualified to serve as PJM CEO” and characterizing the board’s selection process as “fundamentally unsound.”

Slocum said Asthana has been “repeatedly sanctioned for predatory practices and ripping off household consumers.”

In its May decision, the Connecticut Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) said Direct Energy displayed “callousness” toward its marketing violations during enforcement hearings. “Direct’s management displayed no regard for the customers affected and displayed no contrition for the company’s actions,” the regulator said. “After hearing days of testimony, reviewing hundreds of pages of transcripts, and listening to numerous audio recordings of marketing calls, the Authority concluded that Direct was willing to employ whatever means necessary to gain customers.”

The PURA inquiry into Direct Energy dates back to 2013, when Asthana became president of Direct Energy Residential, according to his LinkedIn profile. PJM did not immediately respond to request for comment yesterday evening on Asthana’s ties to the PURA fine.

PURA said in its decision that Direct Energy’s violations “are particularly grave. Deceptive marketing violations go to the heart of the electric supplier market” and that “if suppliers are allowed to systemically violate the legal protections, it erodes confidence in the entire supplier market system.”

Asthana previously led power generation operations at Direct Energy, energy trading at both Direct Energy and at the TXU group of companies, as well as generation optimization and dispatch at TXU Energy, an Irving, Texas-based retail electricity provider.

He has a degree in economics from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

Earlier this year, the attorneys general of Maryland, Delaware and the District of Columbia urged PJM to select as CEO someone attuned to climate change. Asthana does not have a professional record directly related to climate change, based on his LinkedIn profile.