Mary Kipp recently found herself in front of her son’s fifth grade class, fielding questions about her job as CEO of El Paso Electric.
How many hours a week does she work? About 70 hours, she told the curious fifth graders. Is everybody paid the same at El Paso Electric? Who makes more – somebody with a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree? “It’s fun listening to them, because we tend to get stuck in our own way of thinking,” Kipp says.
She told the class she’s a bookworm who is most comfortable reading and researching. “For all of you who aren’t asking questions, you might be standing in front of a room of fifth graders someday,” she said.
Kipp, 49, is a rarity among utility CEOs. She is the first female chief executive in El Paso Electric’s 115-year history and one of only a handful nationwide.
She was also the youngest ever to take the helm of the utility when she became CEO a little over a year ago. She succeeded Tom Shockley, 71, who retired after almost four years on the job.
Kipp was born in El Paso but grew up on a ranch in Southern New Mexico near Lordsburg where she rounded up, branded and vaccinated cattle on the family ranch.
“The ranch I grew up on was literally off the grid. We had a diesel generator which worked sometimes and sometimes didn’t, so I know the value of the power grid,” Kipp says.
When she was 10, her father taught her how to drive cattle and later how to operate heavy machinery like graders and front-end loaders.
“At some point somebody wanted to string a transmission line across the ranch. My dad being kind of stubborn said, ‘No. I want a big distribution line,’ which is incredibly expensive to build. He got it. After that, we always had power and it was beautiful,” Kipp says.
The family moved to El Paso when Kipp was 17. She taught English in Tokyo, Japan, for two years, earned a bachelor’s degree from Williams College in Massachusetts and later graduated from the University of Texas School of Law.
For four years, she worked as a senior enforcement attorney with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in Washington, D.C., where she investigated and prosecuted violations of federal energy laws.
Since 2009, Kipp has held various positions at El Paso Electric. Most recently, she was president of the company, which serves about 400,000 retail and wholesale customers in Texas and Southern New Mexico.
Kipp is involved in a number of community organizations, including the Borderplex Alliance, Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce, Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas El Paso branch and Sun Bowl Association.
To answer part of that fifth grader’s question, her annual salary is $625,000, plus bonuses and stock awards, according to a recent public filing.
Kipp sat down with El Paso Inc. and talked about why the company is asking for another rate increase, what makes her bullish on solar and the first thing she did as CEO.
Q: What do you want to accomplish as CEO?
I’d like to build on some of the things my predecessor, Tom Shockley, started. Some of that is improving our relationship with the community. We’ve made some really good strides there. As the community grows and prospers, we grow and prosper. As you know, we are filing a new rate case, and that always creates a bit of a kerfuffle.
We want to be good environmental stewards. We have gotten out of coal; we were very fortunate to be able to do that, and it is something you are going to see more utilities trying to do. Coal no longer competes on economics here. El Paso Electric has among the lowest carbon footprints in the country, and that is a positive for attracting companies to El Paso that have a green focus.
My first day as CEO I announced a program – our women’s affinity group. It’s called the Women’s Power Pipeline. It provides mentorship opportunities, speaking opportunities and education opportunities for women to help foster an environment where they can move up in the company. This company should look very much like our community. Diversity in every way – gender, age, ethnicity, religion, thought – is a positive.
As utilities move ahead we’re all going to have to look at different ways of doing things, because we live under a regulatory framework that was designed for a very different reality than we see today. Our Community Solar program, for example, is the first of its type to be approved in Texas.
Q: You’re often referred to as El Paso Electric’s first female president and the youngest president in its 113-year history. Do you get tired of being called that?
It’s funny you say that. I have a friend who was recently made the first Latina president of a utility in San Francisco, and we just had this conversation. When I was made president, I had so many women come into my office, some of them in tears, saying we never thought we would see this day. When that happens, you recognize this huge mantle of responsibility.
I don’t mind hearing it. I mind hearing it took 113 years, because that is way too long. I can’t tell you how much of my career I’ve spent in a room as the only woman.
Q: Why are there so few women in the energy industry?
You could ask yourself that about many industries. Historically, there was discrimination. But something that all of us have to be super careful of is we all like to think of ourselves as open and unbiased, but there are a lot of studies that show we have biases. We like to pick people who look and sound like we do. We all need to continue to work with people who maybe on paper we don’t have a lot in common with.
Q: How diverse is El Paso Electric’s workforce?
We do not have as many women as I would like in our executive management ranks. In fact, I think there are only two of us. That’s why I started the Women’s Power Pipeline. We also have a talent management program to identify top performers.
Q: What advice can you offer women who want a career in the energy industry?
You have to be willing to work hard, and you can’t be thin-skinned. People like to hate utilities; nobody likes to pay their electric bill.
Don’t be biased yourself against people because of what they look like on the outside.
I have had some amazing women help me in my career, but I have also had some amazing men who have helped me in my career – one being an older white man from East Texas, Tom Shockley, who is one of the most fair and ethical people I have ever met. Be open to that.
Q: Baby boomers are beginning to retire and utilities have struggled to replace them. Is that something El Paso Electric is experiencing?
Absolutely. We have some employees who have been here for a long time and they are incredibly knowledgeable.
They know things about the system it probably took 30 years to learn. They are impossible to replace.
One of the reasons we have slightly more employees than usual now – about 1,100 – is we have to have an overlap between the more experienced employees that are looking to retire and the new generation. We need that knowledge transfer.
We’ve seen a lot of younger people just out of college wanting to work here. Our applications are way up.
Q: You often mention the environment and importance of getting carbon out of the air. It’s trendy to do so. Is it just marketing?
No. People who have known me my whole life know this is something I believe deeply. I have no doubt that climate change is real and it is caused by humans. As long as I am in a job where I can make a difference in that way, I feel a responsibility to do that.
Now, I have to do it in a cost effective way and with regulatory approval. Those are all great checks. But all things being equal, when I have a choice to do something to lower the carbon in the environment or not, I will lower the carbon.
Q: Where does El Paso Electric get its power?
We have about half nuclear, 40-percent natural gas and more than 3-percent solar.
Q: How expensive is solar?
Our initial solar was more expensive and driven by a renewable energy requirement in New Mexico – that was 13 cents. Today we are seeing solar come in as low as 3 cents. Our Macho Springs solar facility in New Mexico competed in an all-source RFP (request for proposal) against natural gas. Solar competed and beat natural gas as the lowest cost source of generation.
One of the reasons I believe more in large-scale solar over rooftop solar is that it is cheaper and a more cost effective way to take carbon out of the air.
Q: What is Community Solar?
It’s a solar farm out in Montana Vista. We’ve broken ground on it and will be completing it in spring. It’s a pilot project that allows our customers who would like to have a greater percentage of solar in their generation mix to buy a block of solar energy.
Not only does it allow our customers in Texas to opt for an even cleaner mix with more renewable power, it also provides a hedge against future rate increases. People can move it with them. I’m on the waiting list for that, personally.
Q: Is there much interest in the program?
We have 1,200 people already on the waiting list.
Q: Is this an effort to compete with rooftop solar companies and drive them out of business?
If we wanted to compete with rooftop solar, we would do rooftop solar. This is a very different product. This is a way for people who are environmentally minded to make a positive environmental impact.
Q: Rooftop solar is a growing trend nationwide. How is it impacting El Paso Electric?
It is not impacting us much at all – right now. But it is growing. We have about 1,000 rooftop solar customers.
Q: Rooftop solar and battery storage have become more competitive and have spawned an entire industry with some big names, like Elon Musk’s SolarCity. Are you worried the traditional utility model will become obsolete?
No. Not in any of our lifetimes. It is a disruption, but I don’t think that is a bad thing, and the utility industry has done a great job responding to what our customers want. Some utilities are doing rooftop solar. One of the reasons we have not looked at that is I truly believe rooftop solar and net metering is not fair to other customers.
Q: Why does El Paso Electric want to raise rates, again?
We don’t, but we need to. Some of our generation is 60 years old. We’ve always been consistent and said we would need another rate case. It’s something we need to do to meet the growing needs of the community. We had a rate freeze for a long time and couldn’t build. But now we really need to move into the next generation of technology.
Q: Is this a new normal? Are there going to be more frequent rate cases?
I certainly hope not. We really don’t like having them. I would hope that if we get a decent result, we could stay out for a few years.
Q: Last summer, El Paso Electric issued a warning it might have to impose managed outages because of customer demand, the first such warning the company has issued in years. Is that likely to happen again this year?
We had some tight days last summer.
Q: Is it likely to happen again this summer?
I don’t think so.