Staying Ahead of the Sustainability Curve with Seattle City Light’s Sephir Hamilton

Seattle City Light has helped to continuously change and evolve the sustainability paradigm nationwide for decades.

 
John Shegerian: Welcome back to Green Is Good. This is the GoGreen edition of Green Is Good and we are here in downtown Seattle with no more fitting a guest than Sephir Hamilton. He is the Chief of Staff for Seattle City Light. They keep the lights on here. Welcome to Green Is Good. Sephir Hamilton: Well, John, thanks so much for having me. What a great event this is. John Shegerian: This is a great event and talk a little bit about what you came here to speak about today, Sephir. Sephir Hamilton: Well, I came here representing Seattle City Light and moderated a fantastic panel earlier today on what businesses are doing here in Seattle but also nationwide and across the globe to promote green energy efficiency and sustainability in their businesses. John Shegerian: That’s great. And talk a little bit about – for our audience – your journey leading up to becoming Chief of Staff at Seattle City Light. Did you grow up here in Seattle? Sephir Hamilton: Actually, no. I was born, interestingly, in a commune in upstate New York. John Shegerian: Wow. Sephir Hamilton: So my parents taught me how to be one with nature and all that, and that’s where I got this interesting name here. John Shegerian: This was in your DNA and your blood from the beginning. Sephir Hamilton: It was in my blood. Yeah. My dad was a plumber growing up and he got into – very early – some of the geothermal and energy-efficient heat pumps. So I got the bug from him and went into engineering so I could do what he wasn’t able to do as a plumber. John Shegerian: Being born in a commune and growing up a little bit on a commune you were already doing the circular economy, which has now just come to the greater United States. Sephir Hamilton: That’s right. It was on the fringe then, but I think it’s pop culture now. John Shegerian: It is now pop culture. So here we are in Seattle and you just moderated this panel. How did it go? Were you excited about how the whole panel was received? Sephir Hamilton: I was excited. And I’ll tell you what really gave it great energy was the entire audience was here to really learn and understand. We talk about “green” but it means so many different things to so many different people and the audience just had great questions, the panel members gave great experiences and the energy was really about “Hey, we can continue to do more,” and that was great to hear. John Shegerian: That is so great. And that is such a great message for our audience in terms of sustainability. It’s a journey and we can all continue to do more. It’s never over. Sephir Hamilton: It’s never over. And it was interesting to see the three panel members we had today. One was from Harley Marine Services here in the port in Seattle. It’s an industrial organization but they are investing money in creating LEED-certified buildings even though they don’t have to. They think it’s a really important part of the thing. Starbucks, who has got a global mission to be sustainable as well as serve great coffee, talked about all the work they were doing and committed to sourcing 100 percent of their energy from renewables worldwide and reducing energy by 25 percent and what they were doing to get there. It was great to hear. The most impressive part for me was hearing about – from Rob Harmon, President and CEO over at EnergyRM – this model that he created in partnership with Dennis Hayes over at the Bullitt Center to completely revolutionize how energy efficiency upgrades are financed. Seattle City Light has been in the conservation game since the 1970s because we said we don’t want to invest in nuclear energy to meet our own growth. We’d rather invest and help our customers save energy. John Shegerian: Good point. Sephir Hamilton: To me, we have been at that for almost 40 years, and this new model has an opportunity to completely revolutionize how we do energy conservation in the United States. John Shegerian: Sustainability is a top-of-mind issue. Sephir Hamilton: Yeah. John Shegerian: And you’re the Chief of Staff of Seattle City Light – and for our audience members out there that want to see all the green things that are going on at Seattle City Light, it’s www.seattle.gov/light. So talk a little bit about energy conservation and efficiency, and what does that mean with regards to Seattle City Light? Sephir Hamilton: Well, as I mentioned the entire industry in utilities was built on “generate power and transmit it to your customers.” We were fortunate in Seattle. Our founders were visionaries, and they built up our hydro resources so that we had clean renewable energy for almost 100 years. In the 1970s, we faced a choice of “we need to build new power plants,” and that’s expensive. John Shegerian: Right. Sephir Hamilton: And there weren’t a lot more hydro we could build at the time so the question was “do we invest in nuclear power or not?” And as a publicly owned utility, we are here for our customers and we answer to our customers and our customers said, “We don’t want to invest in nuclear power,” and we’d rather invest in conversation and helping our customers save energy so we don’t need to build the next power plant. So that was back in the 1970s, and the vision and foresight of Seattle led the way for the whole country of getting into conservation ahead of the rest of the country. John Shegerian: That’s so great. Instead of more nuclear and all that other kind of stuff. We’ve had Solar City on show on various occasions. What has the rise and the coolness now of the whole solar revolution done to Seattle City Light, and how do you now work with the whole solar generation that now is upon us? Sephir Hamilton: Well, just like conservation, solar and other renewables is something our customers want. John Shegerian: Right. Sephir Hamilton: And as a publicly owned utility, we give our customers what they want. So we’ve been long supportive of solar – even in Seattle where we don’t get as much sun as other areas of the country or world – and we’ve innovated some things around solar as well with community solar. We were one of the first utilities to own and operate a community solar, where the utility builds a community-based solar maybe in a park or at a customer’s location and we give all of our customers the option to buy into that and be investors in that community and solar plant. And then we do virtual net metering so that the power that is produced, they get that share credited on their bill. So everyone – even if you’re in a multifamily or don’t have enough sun on your house – can participate in solar in a real way. John Shegerian: So everyone is cheering on the solar revolution at Seattle City Light because they can actually be a real benefit for more solar happening to all the residents and all the users that buy their electric from you. Sephir Hamilton: We are. We’re a supporter. That said, the entire industry is grappling with “OK, what does this mean to the utility business model,” because the more solar that comes on, the more battery storage – Tesla is coming out today with an announcement we think will impact the utility industry with battery storage. John Shegerian: Right. Sephir Hamilton: And controls whether it’s Nest thermostats or some of the controls we’ve seen. We think the entire industry that’s been operating the same way for 100 years is going to be going through a lot of change in the next few years because of that and so “business as usual” is not going to work and so we need to look at that. John Shegerian: We’re going to come back and talk a little bit about that change in a second. For our audience members who just joined us, we’re honored to have with us Sephir Hamilton. He is the Chief of Staff of Seattle City Light. To learn more about what Sephir and his colleagues are doing, go to www.seattle.gov/light. Talk a little bit about the change. We’ve had thought leaders on the show before, energy specialists before. Their theory is that about half the energy that is produced in the world is wasted. So what we’ve seen now and part of the sustainability revolution here in the United States is energy management taking hold. And you mentioned just a minute or so ago the advent of Nest and other smart home devices and other smart energy management devices. How do you work with that whole part of the revolution to continue to reinvent your brand to stay ahead of the sustainability curve? Sephir Hamilton: Well, I think that’s a great question, John, and every utility in the nation and the world is at a fork in the road. John Shegerian: Yeah. Sephir Hamilton: Do we defend the status quo? Do we say, “Hey. This is the structure we have,” and we talk about stranded cost and fixed cost recovery, and that’s important stuff and we’ve got to take it seriously and have a real discussion. And there a real opportunity to engage in a discussion around “OK. Well, with this technology changing, is it an opportunity for us to offer services to our customers to partner with some of these technology providers?” As the nation’s greenest utility we’ve got a responsibility to our customers to be proactive and say, “What can we do to adapt? What can we do to give customers, what they want and still make sure that we’re able to pay our linemen to keep the lights on and do all of that?” John Shegerian: As the leading green and sustainability utility, all eyes must be on you in terms of how the paradigm is going to be reinvented. Sephir Hamilton: Well, I think that’s what’s really exciting here in Seattle. And we’re in a fortunate place where because of investments made 100 years ago in hydro we have the lowest power of any large city in the country. John Shegerian: Wow. Sephir Hamilton: And that gives us some time to really think about and do this right. So we’re not in emergency mode like maybe some of our peers in Hawaii, for example, where they’ve got a lot of sun and high-priced electricity. We’ve got some time to make sure we’re doing it right, and we think there is an exciting opportunity in Seattle to think about what does the utility future look like? How can we help lead the country in a way that’s going to be good for the bottom line and good for green and good for our customers? John Shegerian: Everything that I hear and learn and I feel here, it’s a city whose foundation is innovation. I mean, not only do we have great companies like yours, Seattle City Light, but you have – this is the birthplace of Amazon, Starbucks and Costco and the home for Alaska Air, the greenest airline in terms of energy consumption and things of that such. Carbon footprint. Sephir Hamilton: Greenest and best customer service. John Shegerian: The best customer service. And also services Fresno directly, so of course we’re very proud of that. It seems as though this has really become not only one of the core hubs for innovation but also sustainability, which then gives you an edge to continue your leadership role as the paradigm in public utilities is reinvented now and redefined. Sephir Hamilton: And that’s what’s so exciting. John Shegerian: Wow. Sephir Hamilton: For us, it’s not a choice between “do I make the right choices sustainability or do I make the right choice for the bottom line?” The two are the same. And you mentioned earlier, if we are wasting half the energy we produce, I want us to save energy. Our CEO who is retiring, Jorge Curasco, was on the board chair there recently, and the work they’re doing is on energy productivity. This is not about conserving or doing with less. This is about the economic engine that is crippled because we’re wasting energy. And so if we can continue to find ways to put every kilowatt hour to better use that’s not just good for the environment, that’s good for the bottom line. John Shegerian: And we’re going to leave it at that today, Sephir, but you’re always welcome back to continue all the great messaging and journey that you’re on and how you’re redefining how great companies should be run. And for our listeners out there to learn more about what Sephir is doing with his colleagues at Seattle City Light please go to www.seattle.gov/light. Sephir, you are an inspiring thought leader, a sustainability superstar and truly living proof that Green Is Good. Thank you very much for your time today. Sephir Hamilton: John, a pleasure. Thank you. John Shegerian: Thank you.