J. Wayne Leonard has ruled the multi-billion dollar electric utility Entergy Corporation as chief executive officer for ten years. Saying that he has strong opinions does little to describe the ego required for such a position. Chief executives at utilities are notorious egomaniacs; reading the nasty schoolgirl-esque letters between the management of Exelon, which made a hostile bid to buy fellow utility NRG, and the other company’s management, reveals their swagger and narcissism. Being the CEO of any company takes a healthy dash of cojones, but when many billions of dollars are involved, those personalities reach a different level altogether.
I am a financial reporter who moonlights as a liberal activist. My job as a reporter recently sent me to a utility conference, at which I listened to a panel discussion between Leonard and two other chief executives of two other multi-billion dollar utilities. The stimulus bill, alongside green energy, carbon legislation, building a smart grid, and other buzz topics, were, unsurprisingly, the focus of the panel.
The panel I attended was dubbed “A View from the Top”, implying that these CEOs, sitting atop the mountains of cash at their respective companies, can see more clearly than other people. Executives are getting the same airtime these days as politicians; the names Liddy and Geithner have equal relevance in a discussion of our current economic crisis.
Leonard termed the new administration’s legislation and ideas about energy “goofy” and called for “economic bearing as opposed to social engineering.” He was engaging, convincing, and charming. The crowd laughed at his jokes and relished his opinions as facts. The moderator took an informal poll at the end, called “True or False”: he posed an idea from the new administration to the audience and asked those who thought it would soon be true to raise their hands. When asked if ideas such as carbon cap and trade programs, federal renewable portfolio standards, and large amounts of electrical cars on the road would be seen in the near future, only a few hands waved in the air like weeds that had yet to be plucked.
Months before he was elected, I was invited to volunteer at one of Obama’s rallies in Mayfair, Pennsylvania. Green energy was already high on his agenda. When Obama used phrases such as “energy independence,” “clean coal,” “renewable energy standards,” and “green economy,” he received wild applause. These were dreams the audience shared, and Obama was going to make them reality. He joked and smiled, with his sleeves rolled up, and described the world in ways that the crowd believed in.
Leonard and Obama are extremely similar. A strong leader’s words can completely convince their herd of something yet to be seen (or that it never will be seen, depending on which you listened to). They both believed in two entirely different and yet completely viable versions of reality.
And neither has set out a clear or specific plan against the other. It was on behalf of his ratepayers that Leonard rejected the new administration’s agenda: he claimed, “We’re not against renewables,” and then followed with a huge “but”, in which he called for sustainable and more economic plans that would not hurt ratepayers. That was as far as he went in outlining his own set of plans.
Renewable energy companies share the goal of “grid parity”, which is the point at which traditional energy prices climb so high and the cost of renewable energy falls so low that they overlap and cost the same amount. Right now these two lines are crawling slowly toward each other. The lines that represent the views of energy executives and politicians making decisions about renewable energy, however, remain tragically parallel. What does it mean to get two groups, each of whom answers to a different crowd, to work together on a similar goal? Does either group see any more clearly than the other?