Back Talk

Powering Down

Retiring PGE chief Peggy Fowler on evil CEOS, science, and the inevitable perils of being green

By Bart Blasengame May 19, 2009 Published in the April 2009 issue of Portland Monthly

With the economy crumbling, banks folding, and major corporations looking for handouts, CEOs are often cast as the bad guys. You’re getting out at a good time. I put this into process several years ago, before I had any idea of what was going to happen with the economy. If anything, I have some regrets about leaving now. I love challenges.

When you see corporate heads getting grilled on Capitol Hill, do you have empathy for them? Absolutely. You have to. Some of them make some very bad mistakes and have reasons for being there, but others get caught up in the politics of things. It’s difficult. A company like ours, we’re over a hundred years old, and I was constantly reminded of decisions that were made thirty, fifty, sometimes a hundred years ago that I had to live with. You just make the best decisions possible with the information you have and move forward.

Retirement leads to a lot of reflection. What are you most proud of? I feel like I’ve helped the company get to a good place. We became publicly traded again [in 2006]. We pretty much finished up working through—with the Public Utility Commission—most of the issues around the Trojan nuclear plant, and we finished our new plant, Port Westward. We’ve got wind plants coming in the future, so it seems like a good time to hand things off.

Is it more difficult providing energy to a city that seems to care so much about the topic? I think people in Portland are tougher. I don’t think they realize what we do, or that we’re given enough credit for what we do. We have one coal-fired plant in the state. We depend less on coal than many other utilities do. People expect more from us in that regard than they do in other areas, and they also want lower prices. If you have lower prices, it’s probably because you’re dependent on coal, or you’re dependent on an old nuclear plant, and sometimes people don’t understand that.

What are some of PGE’s goals moving forward? The state has a renewable energy standard: we’re supposed to have 25 percent of our energy from renewable resources by 2025, and we will meet that. Going into the future, for us it’s more about wind and solar power. With the completion of the [Biglow] Canyon wind-plant projects, I think we’ll be at about 11 percent, and that’s not counting hydro. We probably don’t get enough credit for that: about 25 percent of our energy comes from hydro.

Are there any particular energy-related challenges facing Portland? Not really. We’re number one in the nation for renewable energy, so if anything we have an advantage. We’re very fortunate to have a variety of resources, where we can choose between hydro and gas, and we’ve got a lot of solar in the area that we can use. Wind, too. We have a good transmission system with Bonneville power.

So what now? I guess we’ll start with our vacation home in Redmond. I want to ski more, play a little more golf, and I need to make sure that I stay with my exercise program. But mainly it’s about leaving some flexible time, so that I’m not booked every single minute of the day like I have been.

And when your electricity goes out or you don’t agree with your PGE bill? I’ll use the regular channels: I’ll call customer service.

You won’t even pull a “do you know who you’re talking to”? That would be very inappropriate. If there’s an outage, my power doesn’t come on before any other person’s. I’m just the same as anybody else now.

Filed under