Elliot Mainzer is ending a seven-year stint as CEO/administrator at Bonneville Power Administration to lead an organization that has become a central figure in decarbonizing the West, it was announced Aug. 6.
Mainzer will succeed Steve Berberich as president and CEO of the California Independent System Operator, after Berberich retires Sept. 30. An Aug. 6 BPA news release said U.S. DOE will name an acting BPA administrator "at a later date to ensure a smooth transition."
Mainzer's last official day leading BPA will be Aug. 31.
Berberich has spent 14 years at CAISO, the past nine as CEO. Under his watch, the region's only independent grid operator became a catalyst for renewable energy development around the West as it implemented clean-energy goals of the Legislature.
Berberich helped lead the ISO's shift toward renewable energy, demand response and distributed energy programs. He was instrumental in upgrading energy management and market software and guided the CAISO management team to create the Western Energy Imbalance Market, which will include entities serving 82 percent of load in the West, according to CAISO. He also oversaw CAISO's expansion to become the reliability coordinator for much of the Western Interconnection.
Mainzer has worked in many facets of renewable energy policy and development. He started his career in the early stages of wind development in the West by creating a renewable energy trading desk for Enron before moving to BPA in 2002, where he held a variety of management positions.
Mainzer was Bonneville's trading floor manager and manager of transmission policy and strategy, before becoming executive VP of corporate strategy, in which he led BPA's strategic planning process and provided policy leadership and cross-agency coordination on renewable resources, market design, climate change and integrated planning.
His tenure as CEO/administrator at BPA started during a period of uncertainty and chaos for the federal agency. Mainzer was named acting administrator on July 13, 2013, shortly after DOE officials escorted then-Administrator Bill Drummond out of BPA Portland headquarters building over what DOE said was "prohibited personnel practices" affecting veterans' preference in hiring, and possibly retaliating against whistleblowers. Drummond was suspended and subsequently resigned in January 2014.
Mainzer was named administrator later in 2014, after DOE temporarily stripped the agency of its hiring authority and took more of an oversight role in BPA's operations. An Inspector General report that reviewed BPA's hiring practices left many public-power officials in the Northwest at the time genuinely concerned about the future of BPA.
Mainzer worked to rebuild DOE's trust in the agency, while reaching out and listening to the needs of BPA's broad list of constituents and focusing on cutting Bonneville's costs to keep the agency competitive in a rapidly changing energy marketplace.
Utility executives, environmental groups and clean energy advocates praised hiscollaborative approach to regional issues and his emphasis on sustainable solutions.
When Ralph Cavanagh, now co-director of the climate and clean energy program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, began his career with NRDC in 1979, he said most environmental advocates saw "BPA as a classic cartoon villain, dedicated to despoiling a spectacular Northwest landscape with an endless progression of giant coal, nuclear and hydropower projects," Cavanagh wrote in an Aug. 6 blog post.
"Over the ensuing years, thanks in no small part to Elliot himself, BPA has soared as a catalyst for decarbonizing the Pacific Northwest region and advancing core values of environmental stewardship," Cavanagh wrote.
Scott Corwin, executive director of the Northwest Public Power Association, said, "Elliot consistently reached out to hear customer concerns."
"He has been a true partner in working with public power in the Northwest, and his approach and expertise should serve him very well at the CAISO," Corwin said in a statement emailed to Clearing Up.
When Mainzer took over at BPA, rates were climbing, and the agency was wrestling with the first periodic oversupply event that forced it to curtail wind energy in its balancing authority area.
Now Mainzer leaves Bonneville on solid financial ground, and well-positioned to compete in a marketplace that values the emissions-free, dispatchable hydroelectricity, sources said.
Under Mainzer, BPA is modernizing its information technology infrastructure, and has cut its costs and stabilized rates.
During his tenure Bonneville in 2018 signed an extension of the 2008 Columbia Basin Fish Accords, and also instituted a new spring spill regime that allows power to be generated during peak load hours, while spilling more water to help juvenile fish migrate.
He positioned BPA to join the Western EIM in 2022, and spearheaded the development of BPA's 2018-2023 strategic plan which serves as a roadmap to sustain BPA's financial strength, modernize BPA's assets and system operations, and provide competitive power products and services.
He transformed BPA's Transmission Services business unit by negotiating a new open access tariff, put in place enhanced transmission planning and established performance metrics for customer responsiveness.
And he emphasized BPA's need to trim its costs. "Bending the cost curve" became a mantra that Mainzer repeated in many public appearances. The agency succeeded in keeping its power rates flat in its last rate case, and through settlements with customers lowered the transmission rate increase from an initially proposed 9.6 percent to 3.6 percent.
"We appreciate Elliot's leadership in setting BPA on a path towards long-term financial health by developing a strategy focused on growing the value of the agency's resources while implementing smart cost-cutting measures, and rebuilding trust with its customers," Scott Simms, executive director of the Public Power Council, which represents preference utility customers of BPA, said.
Nancy Hirsh, executive director of the NW Energy Coalition, said "Elliot created a culture of change within BPA's power and transmission services to modernize their operations to become more competitive in the market of today and tomorrow. It will be a challenge to replace his visionary and strategic approach to BPA's role in our clean energy future."
Attention now turns to the Northwest congressional delegation. While the Department of Energy will appoint the new administrator, DOE has historically relied on the delegation's recommendation.
"In the coming years, BPA will need to make important decisions that will impact the agency's competitive position, its relationship with customers, and the durability of its future," PPC said in a letter to the delegation. "With BPA's current power sales contracts nearing expiration, the challenges are considerable, but the opportunities are great. The next Administrator will need to have the knowledge, skills, and demeanor to navigate a number of difficult issues—issues that are vital to the region, our economy, and sustainability."
PPC said any candidate should have "extensive Northwest electric utility experience at a senior level," a demonstrated working knowledge of BPA's primary mission and statutory responsibilities and a "noteworthy history of leadership, collaboration, principled decision-making, and an active commitment to furthering the interests of Northwest electricity consumers."