Marin County CEO is persuasive advocate for cleaner Bay Area energy

CEO Spotlight

In this monthly series, the Business Journal talks with who occupy the lofty spot in a local organization, asking about their professional and personal opportunities and challenges.

The series is sponsored by Summit State Bank and Sonoma Clean Power. They had no input on the editorial content.

Keeping the lights on is not as simple as flipping a switch. At least not for Dawn Weisz.

Weisz is CEO of Marin Clean Energy, a not-for-profit that provides electricity from renewable sources to more than 540,000 customers in Marin, Napa, Solano and Contra Costa counties.

These days, she and her organization face a number of challenges such as a changing climate, like the blistering hot days in September which pushed the entire state grid to the brink of blackouts. In addition, the state ban on gas-powered cars. That means more demand for power as more people plug in vehicles to recharge.

And then there's how to change customer habits to better match demand for when there’s the most draw on the power grid.

While all of this keeps Weisz busy. And when the daughter of Peace Corps parents needs a recharge, she gets into nature in the North Bay and travels abroad.

The woman in charge

Weisz was working for Marin County managing energy and sustainability initiatives when she started exploring the idea of creating a business that could provide power to customers that was not generated using fossil fuels.

The answer was creating the first community choice aggregation agency in the state, an idea that has spawned about two dozen programs like it in California. Customers pay the agency for electric generation, and PG&E for delivery and maintenance of its power poles and wires.

She confesses that when the legislation was first being written in 2002 to create the CCA, her children had to endure numerous City Council meetings that she took them to. Today, one is a recent college graduate and the other a sophomore in college.

Prior to moving to Marin County she worked as a labor and environmental justice organizer in Los Angeles.

“I love backpacking and being out in nature. That is really what brought me to California,” Weisz said. “I grew up in North Carolina and there is not a lot of backpacking there. I wanted to move to a place that had more opportunities to explore nature and Northern California was that place.”

Her roots, though, run deeper than the United States. She was born in Kenya, where her parents were serving in the Peace Corps.

“Traveling to other parts of the world has helped me gain appreciation about how to use resources responsibly,” Weisz said. “To create change I need to do my best to make sure my community and world are in balance and healthy as possible.”

Going forward

Facts about MCE since its launch in 2010

• Eliminated more than 700,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions

• Saved customers more than $68 million

• 49 megawatts of renewable projects built locally

• 5,000 California jobs supported

• Serves more than 1 million people

• Operates in 37 communities in four counties

• Distributed $4 million in energy efficiency rebates

• More than 1,250 level 2 electric vehicle charging ports installed

Source: MCE

To meet the demand for power, MCE generates its electricity from solar, wind, geothermal, and hydroelectric. It also has battery storage capability.

MCE reports it has spent $62 million on local renewable energy projects since its inception. Of the 900 megawatts of renewable power in California that was constructed just for MCE, 49 megawatts are generated in its four-county service area with the other coming from alternative energy sources in the Pacific Northwest and California.

Because batteries require mining for components and there are ensuing environmental issues with disposal of batteries, “we are looking to add even more battery storage, which creates more flexibility on the grid. Some projects are in the development phase, but supply chain issues are causing delays in getting them off the ground.”

Weisz is also hopeful dollars coming from recently passed federal Inflation Reduction Act will help fund renewable energy projects and bring new technologies to the market.

“We are trying to diversify storage. Green hydrogen (hydrogen generated by renewable energy or from low-carbon power) we think will be a more affordable option. Compressed air and gravity storage are other forms of storage that are worth exploring,” she told the Business Journal.

Another project Weisz is anxious to see realized is the virtual power plant in Richmond. The a multi-year development in Richmond to will take the more than 100 houses built pre-World War II for shipyard workers and turn them into “refurbished state-of-the-art homes for first time home buyers, with smart devices integrated into the home.”

Smart devices allow people to operate thermostats, lights and other appliances remotely, therefore being able to turn things on and off, or up and down even when not at home.

At the Contra Costa County project “we will be able to shift energy up and down to help the grid. This helps the grid, helps us with balancing power supply, and helps first time homebuyers get into high-tech homes,” Weisz explained.

Weisz and other leaders of power companies are also trying to re-educate people when to use their electric appliances.

It used to be that the middle of the day was the worst time to crank up the air conditioner, heater, do laundry and run the dishwasher. The more solar power generation takes hold, the less that is true.

It’s midday when the grid is full of clean energy—aka solar power. That is the best time to use electricity. But that supply drops and disappears between 4 and 9 p.m. That’s the reason the mantra now calls for curtailing use of power then. It is also why people with electric vehicles are being told it is better to charge them during daylight hours instead over overnight.

Another ongoing idea is to build up the ability to store solar power when it is generated in battery banks.

Weisz said these are habits that should be learned now and not just during a potential crisis like what occurred in September during the 10-day excruciating statewide heat wave.

California’s grid hit a record on Sept. 6 when demand hit 52,000 megawatts. Blackouts were averted when a statewide text alert was sent asking people to turn off anything electric, which included unplugging computers and anything else with a cord attached to an outlet.

Collaborative approach

The 52-year-old Weisz is the only leader MCE has known. But that doesn't mean there hasn’t been an evolution through the years. Today, she oversees a staff of 90. In 2021, MCE had operating revenues of more than $450 million.

“As any of us are with a startup, we want to control everything,” said Kate Sears. “I watched her develop and train-up new staff and bring in new people, and expand her own skills as a leader and CEO. It has been a wonderful journey.”

Sears was on the Marin County Board of Supervisors from June 2011 to January 2021. She was on the MCE board of directors that entire time, with the last six years as its president.

While MCE started as solely a provider of power to Marin County, it now serves customers in three other counties. Sears was there when MCE expanded into new territories as well as opened a second office in Concord. (Headquarters are in San Rafael.)

It was this willingness to grow and still keep true to the mission of providing alternative energy solutions to residents and businesses that impressed Sears about Weisz.

“Dawn was always willing to think forward: What does the organization need and how do we make it happen?,” Sears said. “She was not afraid to develop new management skills and use new technology.”

On top of that, those who know Weisz, say she has the ability to talk about her industry to peers as well as those less familiar with it.

“Dawn is very good about explaining what can seem like arcane and complex issues of the energy market,” Sears added.

Les Guliasi, president of the board of the Power Association of Northern California, said, “She is an effective communicator. I have seen her interact with all different types of people. She has a disarming smile. She comes across as being open and friendly, but at the same time she can be assertive and effective in order to advocate on behalf of her organization.”

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect MCE's correct operating revenues for 2021 and to clarify its sources of power.

CEO Spotlight

In this monthly series, the Business Journal talks with who occupy the lofty spot in a local organization, asking about their professional and personal opportunities and challenges.

The series is sponsored by Summit State Bank and Sonoma Clean Power. They had no input on the editorial content.

Show Comment