New CPower CEO Mike Smith may have backed into the energy industry, but he has since helped move it forward. In his more than 25 years in the sector, he has developed a reputation for driving growth and delivering innovation at some of energy’s leading companies.
Now at the helm of the nation’s largest provider of distributed energy resource (DER) monetization opportunities and virtual power plants, Smith is set to guide CPower, its customers and the grid into the future.
“I am thrilled to be joining the team at CPower, a company whose work is essential in ensuring a successful and reliable new energy economy,” Smith stated when CPower announced that he would be CEO following the retirement of previous CEO John Horton.
“The company has a strong foundation and is well-positioned to capitalize on the tremendous opportunities in the rapidly evolving distributed energy space,” Smith continued.
Most recently the CEO of solar and battery storage developer ForeFront Power, Smith discussed his career as a DER and utility leader, his vision of the industry’s future and his expectations for how CPower and its customers will help enable the transition in an interview with The Current.
The Current: How did you get into the energy industry? And why?
Smith: I got into the energy industry very much by accident. I was practicing law in a law firm in Columbus, Ohio, minding my own business as a trial lawyer, and I was in this period of career growth that I call improv. What I mean by improv is that the answer to every question is, “Yes.”
A partner came up to me one day and said, “We’ve got this new client and they’re in a dispute over natural gas trading in the state of West Virginia. Two of their employees are being deposed in this dispute and they need a lawyer to sit with them during the deposition. Would you do it?” And I said, “Sure. Why not?”
It turns out the client was a then little-known company from Houston called Enron. The two guys who were in this dispute weren’t accused of anything, but they needed to be deposed. So, I sat with them in their depositions.
Then Enron, which had a small office in Columbus, decided they wanted to have permanent counsel in the area, and as part of that wanted to have a lawyer be seconded to their Ohio office to learn natural gas trading. Once again, the law firm came to me and said, “Do you want to work with this natural gas trading company called Enron to learn how to do natural gas contracts?” And, again, I said, “Sure. Why not?” So, I ended up working for Enron as a secondment.
The Current: How has the industry evolved during your career?
Smith: In some ways, it hasn’t changed at all. What I mean by that is, yes, we brought in retail choice, and I saw that happen. But the physicality of the electric grid hasn’t changed a bit. We still make most of our electrons in large central-station power generation and put them into a copper wire and sell those electrons to end-use customers.
What we’re seeing now though, is that the physicality is changing. More and more customers are generating more of their energy instead of buying it from the grid. Also, more and more customers are seeking to reduce energy consumption through energy efficiency programs and many more customers are installing energy storage. So, we’re seeing monumental change in the physicality of the grid and how customers interact with the grid, which I think is what’s exciting about what we’re doing here at CPower.
The Current: What attracted you to the role of CEO at CPower?
Smith: We’ve got a whole industry that’s doing things like building on-site solar generation, building on-site storage and doing other DER projects. That’s all going to continue to happen. CPower sits at this unique position in between those end-use customers that have responsive assets, whether they be load, generation or storage, and the grid, which needs access to those responsive assets. We provide a unique and valuable service sitting in the middle. That’s what attracted me to CPower—being at the number one player, with the best team, in the most exciting piece of the energy industry.
The Current: What do you see as some of the most exciting innovations happening in the energy industry to meet the changing needs and demands of customers and the grid?
Smith: The deployment of energy storage is a big piece of that continued penetration of on-site generation assets, particularly solar but also fuel cells. Again, it’s this theme of more and more customers taking control of their energy production and consumption. This is the most exciting thing. Then, of course, we can use CPower to optimize those assets and provide essential grid reliability services in times when the grids are going to be continually more and more stressed with extreme weather events.
The Current: What does the future of the grid look like?
Smith: It’s going to be an evolution. We’re going to continue to have central-station generation, which will be a combination of nuclear and some kind of fossil fleet, including natural gas, and grid-connected renewables. But more and more, the grid will continue to be decentralized and more resources pushed to the edges of the grid in terms of customer-site generation and storage. That trend will continue for the foreseeable future.
The Current: What role will energy users play in the future?
Smith: Energy users will continue to become a much larger part of the equation as they have opportunities to install on-site generation and storage. We also can’t forget about the fact that the fueling of vehicular fleets will move more to the customer as more and more of our customers electrify the fleets that they own. Customers who shop at their places of business or work at their places of business will be seeking to charge their EVs as well. That’s a whole new piece of the infrastructure puzzle that adds demand and that flexibility needs to be well-managed to have a well-functioning grid.
Also, customers who are controlling their energy costs or are on a sustainability journey are becoming more sensitive to what they’re paying and the source of the energy they’re using. That’s driving a lot of the things that CPower can get involved in both in terms of not just responsive load assets, but also optimizing on-site generation and storage.
The Current: What are your biggest priorities for CPower?
Smith: First and foremost, our focus on the customer is a core company value, and that won’t change. CPower will also continue to do the great things we’ve done to bring the company to where it is now. That is to protect, preserve and expand our legacy capacity demand response business where we can, and then build additional flexibility programs that allow us to provide more DER or asset optimization services for more customers nationwide.
The Current: What else do you want customers to know about you and CPower?
Smith: Customers need to know that we can give them valuable ways to monetize their assets. Every customer that has a building has a load asset that has value. We can help them determine that value and extract that value from the market. And, if you add on to that on-site generation assets or storage assets, that provides even more untapped opportunity for these customers.
To learn more about DER monetization and how CPower can help you monetize your energy assets while supporting sustainability, improving grid reliability and increasing energy resiliency, call us at 844-276-9371 or visit CPowerEnergy.com/contact.
Mike Smith is a visionary and innovative leader who brings more than 25 years leadership experience in the energy industry to CPower as its CEO. Mike joined CPower from ForeFront Power, where he was the CEO of the company’s North American solar and energy storage business, responsible for strategy and all business areas across the U.S. and Mexico.
Prior, Mike served as Senior Vice President, Distributed Energy, at Constellation, the retail energy subsidiary of Exelon Corp., where he was responsible for Constellation’s distributed solar, energy efficiency, and energy asset operations businesses across the U.S. He also served as Vice President, Innovation and Strategy Development, for Exelon Generation, and led Constellation Technology Ventures, Exelon’s venture investing organization. Earlier, Mike was Vice President and Assistant General Counsel for Enron Energy Services and a trial lawyer at Bricker & Eckler, LLP.