by Becca Nelson '20 and Deirdre Francks '20
On February 27th, Pacific Gas and Electric CEO Geisha Williams delivered a forward-thinking lecture on climate change for the 6th Annual Schneider Memorial Lecture. Geisha Williams is the CEO and President of PG&E and the first female Latina CEO of a Fortune 500 Company. Ms. Williams begin the lecture by emphasizing the crucial role climate scientist Steven Schneider played in helping PG&E take action on climate change. She asserted that “[Schneider] made a difference in my decision to join PG&E ten years ago.”
“We are living it. Climate change is here,” Ms. Williams began as she discussed how climate change is currently affecting California. She described how PG&E is taking action on mitigating climate change through innovation. Around 80% of the energy PG&E delivers to its customers comes from sources that emit zero greenhouse gases. In 2003 PG&E used 11% renewable energy, but they have transformed their energy to now be 33% renewables, triple the 2003 amount. Ms. Williams emphasized that PG&E would continue to implement transformative and innovative changes in order to combat climate change, including drastic emissions reductions and contributing to a low carbon economy through a modern, digitized electric grid. Williams asserted that new clean energy technologies will be best optimized through integrating these technologies into an electrical grid that promotes connectivity. She also emphasized the importance of equity in promoting sustainable energy, explaining, “If we create an energy future of have and have-nots, it won’t work...A clean energy future has to be accessible and affordable for all.” Ms. Williams further elaborated that a smarter electrical grid would help promote electric vehicles by enabling an increase in more widely available public charging stations.
Geisha Williams explored the policy implications for a sustainable energy grid in California. She discussed the challenges that arise when rapid technological innovation in the energy sector outpaces the infrastructure of regulatory policies. Ms. Williams argued that an effective policy infrastructure is crucial to supporting investment in clean energy. California laws currently have a policy of inverse condemnation where if a power line falls as a result of extreme weather, the energy company has legal liability and becomes the insurer. With the recent wildfires in California, this policy has posed difficulties for PG&E. Ultimately, Ms. Williams called for a “collaborative approach involving policymakers, communities, and industries”.
Geisha Williams discussed her personal journey and career path. As a child, she immigrated to the United States from Cuba. She was inspired by her parents who worked multiple jobs. “I grew up believing in hard work and anything was possible if you had the courage to pursue it”, Ms. Williams said. Early in her career, Ms. Williams shared with us that the becoming CEO never occurred to her, as she said, “Women didn’t run big companies back then. Latina woman? Immigrants? Come on.” However, a conversation with a mentor changed her perspective when he asked “Why not you?” in terms of running the company in the future. Ms. Williams gave advice for how to be a woman leader in a male-dominated business sector by stressing the importance of doing quality work, not being defined by obstacles, and being respectful of others, while also demanding respect. She concluded the lecture with a rousing call to action, asserting that we all have the potential to be leaders and innovators in taking action on climate change.
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