Garrick Rochu walked into the consumer energy company’s metaphorical corner office in December 2020 when the utility company’s downtown Jackson headquarters was still largely deserted and COVID vaccines were just available.
Nearly 18 months later, Rochus has settled in as consumer president and CEO—and is beginning to return to the office—to lead amid a new reality that running a company with extensive operations in the field and the office isn’t going to be the same.
Rochu will speak at this week’s Mackinac Policy Conference about how the coronavirus and social change over the past two years have transformed the role of CEOs.
Ahead of the Detroit Regional Chamber’s annual conference on Mackinac Island, Rochow spoke to Crane about his experiences and where the utility company is headed as it tries to scrap coal and build tens of thousands of acres of solar power facilities. This partial text has been edited for clarity.
KRINS: Backtrack from 27 months in the past to late February 2020. I was a critical second in the consumer division driving operations before you succeeded Patty Bob as CEO. What was February 2020 like and what happened next?
Rochu: I don’t think anyone knew that this epidemic would last over several years. …I certainly didn’t envision this kind of a long-term pandemic, and I would suggest even today that we’re still working through different variants (of the virus) all over the world, across the country and certainly here in Michigan. One of the things that stuck in my mind was that we were setting up the organization… with men and women in all kinds of stuff. They work with unseen dangers every day. They run on natural gas – you can’t see it, you can smell it. Electricity, you can’t see it. These are tough individuals – men and women who regain strength or dig trenches in some of the best and worst conditions.
And I was on duty there in Alma talking about the possibility of this pandemic – and again this was when we were still face to face – and I had a great group … around me and we were talking about precautionary measures and such. After the conversation ended, two or three people came to me to say: I’m worried. I have a mom I take care of at home. Or I have a disabled child. I’m not worried about myself, but I’m worried about going home to them. These individuals, these tough men and women, deal with unseen dangers every day. But this virus really caught their attention. And I knew at that point that this was going to be something different than what we experienced as a company.
That’s how it led to the pandemic, and it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster at times over the past couple of years.
Do you have people standing around power lines in 30-foot lifts? They do all kinds of things that could put their lives at risk. How do you manage fear within the company?
Great question. What we found with no risk is communication. We spend a lot of time communicating and making sure PPE is taken out. … for those in our field, we still need to respond to our customers, and we still need to put in place an electrical infrastructure. …usually in a bucket truck, there are two people driving around in a bucket truck. We had to separate them. We had to take two vehicles to the job site. …we had to think about every part of the job to make sure they were separate but also equipped with the right PPE. Lots of conversations, lots of face-to-face work, great relationships with our union to be able to navigate through some of those early times in the pandemic to keep people safe, but also to ensure that electricity and natural gas are delivered.
Where are the office operations with the headquarters located in Jackson?
We go back to the office. Depending on your role, depending on the size of the interface you have with your other co-workers, leaders must define what that looks like. We don’t have any kind of mandate across the company saying, “It’s going to be in three days a week.” It’s really a conversation with the leaders of your individual group and the groups you support. In engineering they usually support field people, they are in (the office) more days of the week, usually three to five days a week. Our accounting team is different. They may be on one or two days a week, depending on the nature of their work.
Where are the consumers in the remaining coal plant shutdown schedule? We also hear that if you have some good, treeless farmland facing south, energy consumers may be willing to buy it.
Let me draw a bridge between economic development and renewable energy sources. We are seeing more and more customers want green energy as part of their sustainability. A company like General Motors, not only made a big announcement (in January about electric vehicle investments in Michigan), what was probably under the radar during that big announcement was that it also pledged five in-state plants that go to 100 percent renewable energy. We provide that renewable energy. We’re doing some work with Spectrum Health to provide renewable energy. … we see more and more societies and companies choosing renewable energy. And when they look to locate here in Michigan, they ask what that renewable energy is. This can be an important part of a country’s economic development.
Isn’t that because shareholders are also putting pressure on them?
Either their customers are putting pressure on them, their shareholders are putting pressure on them or it’s just broader sustainability goals they have taken as a company. But here’s the short story about our clean energy plan that delivers affordable energy to Michigan: We’ll stop using coal by 2025. That’s a 60 percent carbon cut, which is in line with the Paris Agreement. We’ll have cleaner air in Michigan, which is great for residents. And we can do that by producing 8000 megawatts of solar energy. That’s a lot of solar… which comes to the other part of your question. It will be on the rooftops of commercial and industrial homes, in some cases it will be brown fields and there will be green fields to be built as well. This is the land we need.
Why haven’t we seen more rooftop solar in industrial buildings? What are the economics of it?
There are some logistics issues. It really pays to think about it from the perspective of a new build as you’re designing it from scratch. It gets into things like loading on the building and weight on the roof. You have to visualize it in the snow load of the building. For older construction, this can still be done but you still have to worry about roof penetration and leaks inside the membranes. … We find that green field constructions (solar arrays) are about a third of the cost of putting (the panels) on the roofing system. Roofs will be part of the solution. I wouldn’t rule it out. But we have to look at the cost piece and how to build it.
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