Power Players: Speaking Truth To Power
In 1970, Bob Lewis was a 20-year-old Georgia State college student who had just lost his job, one he described as “the best job ever.”
“I was a tour guide at the Carling Brewery in Atlanta,” he laughs. Since his roommates were em-ployed at Georgia Power through the college co-op program, Lewis decided to check to see if there was something for him there, too. “I ended up as a flunky in the mechanical engineering de-partment,” he says. “Actually it was a good job; I learned a lot. And it was a good company, so I stayed on.”
Lewis “stayed on” for more than 20 years, progressing through Georgia Power’s management ranks, developing a solid resumé in both the regulated and unregulated corporate energy world.
But for the past six years, he’s served as general manager of Marietta Power & Water, the municipal distribution utility serving the city of Marietta and parts of east Cobb County. The position was a perfect fit for Lewis, 60, who understands the need for big-picture, long-range planning yet thrives in the hands-on, close-to-the-consumer environment of a smaller utility.
“I’m very connected to the people here,” he says. “I grew up in Marietta and feel like I have a personal stake in how this company is run. I think that’s important.”
After earning his degree in business administration in 1973, Lewis went full time with Georgia Power while earning his Master’s in business administration from Georgia State in 1981. Much of his work involved economic evaluations in setting rates; at the time, Georgia Power was in the midst of building Plant Vogtle, a two-unit nuclear power plant near Augusta.
Due in part to increased regulation following the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island Nuclear Gen-erating Station in Pennsyl-vania, construction costs for Plant Vogtle soared past the initial projections. “There were a lot of cost overruns,” recalls Lewis. “It was an interesting time.”
By the mid-1990s, he was working for one of the many companies owned by Georgia Power’s parent Southern Company. His company, Southern Energy, later became Mirant.
“After 25 years in a corporate environment, I moved to a more hands-on type of business. I had much more of a sense of making things happen,” says Lewis. “It was a fun ride for four or five years.” That ride came to a halt when he found himself unemployed in 2002, part of the fallout from the 2001 Enron scandal that rocked corporate America and significantly slowed down the growth of the unregulated energy business.
He joined the board of directors of Marietta Power & Water in April 2003 as a “citizen member,” bringing his decades of experience with him. Just one year later a full-time position opened up, and Lewis was hired as the utility’s general manager. “Timing is everything,” says Lewis. “I bring a big picture understanding of the industry. I’ve done strategic planning, growth planning and rate work, everything I need to do what I’m doing now.”
Though focused on Marietta, Lewis remains involved in statewide and regional energy issues. Marietta Power & Water is part of the 49-member Municipal Electric Auth-ority of Georgia (MEAG), and Lewis currently serves as secretary/treasurer on the authority’s board.
“We’ve got to be looking at new power sources,” he says. “We need to look at renewable. We need to look at new technologies that make sense for our state. It’s important to realize that the country is not homogeneous.” Lewis supports pursuing biomass energy technology, creating energy products from agricultural waste. “Biomass holds potential in the southeast region of the United States,” he says, “But if we had big wide open spaces with constant winds, we’d need to look at wind farm technology. You have to be realistic about what you mandate, but we know we need to move beyond what we’ve been doing.”
Lewis isn’t looking to leave the future to the next generation just yet. “It’s still something that gets me going in the morning,” he says.
And Lewis sticks up for his industry. “Energy companies get tagged as bad guys,” he says. “But we all want a clean environment, we want to prevent waste and remove pollutants, and we need to do it in a way that recognizes all factors – economic, regulatory – that companies deal with.”