By Katie Key
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Steve Kline isn’t very good at taking credit.
However, it is his voice that has helped guide PG&E through a sustainability journey spanning three decades.
As a new and somewhat reluctant employee in the PG&E law department in 1980, Kline’s definition of sustainability started as a strictly environmental one. Now, 32 years later, sitting in his Washington, D.C. office with boxes of hard work and achievements ready for retirement, Kline has a different definition. He describes sustainability in a broader way – the triple bottom line of “people, planet, profit.”
“As I think about the evolution of American utilities over the last three decades, and the extraordinary advances to which they have contributed in energy efficiency, renewable energy, and improved environmental performance more generally, a handful of industry leaders come instantly to mind,” said Ralph Cavanagh, energy program co-director of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “Steve Kline is at the head of that list. His departure elicits equal measures of deep regret and profound gratitude, from a constituency reaching far beyond the PG&E service territory.”
As of the first of April, Steve Kline retired from his full-time work at PG&E. Kline will remain on with the company in an advisory role, continuing to provide guidance on sustainability issues.
A great opportunity
Kline began as an intern at the Pentagon after graduate school at the Patterson School of Diplomacy, with dreams of traveling the world as a Foreign Service officer. But, he made a promise to his dad that he would try working for a company for one year before pursuing the life of a U.S. diplomat.
PG&E was in San Francisco and posed a great opportunity, Kline said. Once on board, Kline became intrigued by the myriad issues facing the company and the energy industry at the time, including the company’s first proposal for marginal cost-based rates, the economics of various energy-supply options, and its first foray into demand-side management.
After nine years with PG&E, Steve Kline, then in corporate planning, helped the utility join the efforts of the NRDC and the Rocky Mountain Institute to form the California Collaborative. At that time, he realized that the promise he had made to his father years before had made him part of something much bigger than a company.
The California Collaborative – a group of representatives from California’s gas and electric utilities, customers, regulators, and environmental groups – was aimed at creating a sustained incentive for all parties to excel in energy-efficiency programs, building on California’s policy of decoupling. (The state’s decoupling policy, which separates utility profits from energy sales, is now recognized as being largely responsible for making California the nation’s most energy-efficient state, while promoting economic growth.)
From environmental stewardship to sustainability
From there, Kline continued to become more involved in sustainability. Determined not to let the company’s environmental footprint be limited to energy efficiency, he was asked to do comprehensive annual updates for PG&E’s Board of Directors Public Policy Committee on the company’s environmental performance, a practice that broadened to sustainability in recent years.
Today, PG&E produces an extensive Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability Report each year, allowing the company to share with stakeholders the steps being taken to improve operations and meet its longstanding commitment to the environment, employees and the many diverse customers and communities the utility serves.
“Making sustainability part of the corporate agenda was easier at PG&E because we already had a culture of involvement in our communities and environmental stewardship,” said Kline, who was named PG&E’s first chief sustainability officer in early 2009.
Over the years, there have been many examples of sustainability in action across the company, including a recently formed grassroots green network of engaged employees. The challenge then became, “how do we knit them together in an integrated way and institutionalize the effort,” Kline said.
Fostering a culture of sustainability
Building a sustainability culture spans the business and includes “our commitment to public and employee safety, all of PG&E’s work with customers and our communities, our work with suppliers to promote diversity and environmental leadership, and the company’s efforts to engage employees and make our employee base reflect the diversity of our customer base,” Kline said. “It also captures, ultimately, how we as a company can help ensure the economic vitality of the communities we serve.”
With the support of company leaders and engaged employees, PG&E has established a solid foundation of awareness and buy-in on corporate responsibility and sustainability that continues to grow and adapt over time.
In fact, PG&E’s sustainability culture has thrived over the tenure of five CEOs, beginning with Richard A. Clarke, in whose memory the company offers an annual environmental leadership award for employees, and extending to current CEO Tony Earley.
Kline had the unique opportunity to know and work for each leader, and “each brought their own focus to our efforts, as I know each successive chief sustainability officer will do.”
Maintaining this momentum, PG&E has named Ezra Garrett, vice president of community relations to succeed Kline as chief sustainability officer.
“Steve Kline’s long and creative leadership in helping envision and create a next-generation utility has been a valuable contribution to the firm and the industry,” said Amory Lovins, co-founder, chairman and chief scientist at the Rocky Mountain Institute. “My colleagues and I have enjoyed and learned from our collaboration with him, and we look forward to his fruitful next chapter.”
Email Katie Key at email@example.com.