Clay Robbins | Executive Profile | ATLANTA TREND
Keeping Lawmakers Plugged In
By Karen Rosen
Whenever Clay Robbins goes out to dinner with friends and colleagues, he’s invariably handed the wine list. Clearly, Robbins’ reputation as a wine aficionado has spread.
“I call it like being the ‘Fastest Gun in the West,’” he says. “Everybody knows who you are.”
And they trust his judgment.
“I zero in on wines that are very good wines and good values,” Robbins says. “I don’t like to spend other people’s money or even my money on an expensive, outrageously priced wine.”
Robbins holds a similar view regarding electricity. As Senior Vice President, Governmental Affairs for Oglethorpe Power Corporation, he believes that “providing affordable and reliable electricity is essential to everybody.”
Oglethorpe Power Corporation is one of the nation’s largest power supply cooperatives with about $9 billion in assets and another $4.5 billion under construction at Plant Vogtle. Oglethorpe serves and is owned by 38 Electric Membership Systems which provide electricity to more than 4.1 million Georgians.
“They depend on us,” Robbins says, “and we have to get it right for them.”
Oglethorpe’s diverse energy portfolio is comprised of natural gas, hydroelectric, coal and nuclear generating plants with a combined capacity of approximately 7,800 megawatts, as well as purchased power. Solar power and other renewable resources are provided to Oglethorpe’s members through its “sister” organization, Green Power EMC.
The corporation owns outright or is majority owner of nine power plants. It is co-owner of four plants with Georgia Power and municipal electric groups. Another plant is shared with Florida and Alabama owners.
Oglethorpe also is co-owner of the existing four nuclear plants in the state as well as co-owner of the two new ones going up at Plant Vogtle. It has about 300 employees, with another 500 working for sister companies under the same owner following a restructuring in 1997.
Robbins is responsible for legislative and public policy for state and federal issues, which entails working with the Georgia General Assembly in Atlanta and the Georgia Congressional Delegation in Washington, D.C.
“What I do is relationships,” he says, “developing relationships with the elected officials and their staffs. There are so many people vying for their time and there’s always somebody on the other side of the issue.”
With four new Congressmen and a new senator taking office, Robbins will head to Washington, D.C., to bring the politicians and their staffs up to speed on laws and regulations that could affect Oglethorpe.
These exercises in utility don’t always succeed.
“You’ve got to be able to articulate your issue and make your ask in a short time,” Robbins says, “and be able to answer the first-, second- and third-level questions. You have to recognize that you win some and you lose some and there’ll be another day.”
This year Robbins has testified twice before the General Assembly. He enjoys his front-row view of government.
“I’m a political junkie,” he says. “I read everything; I watch everything. I find the political process fascinating. I enjoy the relationship side of it, not only with the legislators and their staffs, but people that are out making their voices heard in the public policy arena.”
Robbins grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina, and earned a degree in business administration at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
“I was one of those people who had no idea what I wanted to do,” he says. While in school, Robbins worked part time at a major engineering and construction company, parlaying the opportunity into a job after graduation. He stayed for the next 17 years.
Robbins appreciated that he was able to go in many different directions, taking on various roles in finance, business development, human resources, accounting, IT, contracts, insurance and project control.
Robbins’ work took him from Charlotte to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, back to Charlotte and then to Denver.
His broad background with the engineering and construction company now serves him well at Oglethorpe, which he joined in 1986.
Robbins was attracted to the electric power field by the former CEO at Oglethorpe, who had heard about him from a friend of a friend.
The move to a new company made sense for family reasons, since Robbins had three fairly young children and was tired of moving them around. Oglethorpe had only one office in Tucker.
Plus, the position as manager of project services was akin to what Robbins had been doing in the construction world. (Oglethorpe builds a lot of high-voltage, big transmission lines to the tune of about $200 million a year.) Before the restructuring, Oglethorpe built the transmission lines, but now “sister” company, Georgia Transmission Corporation, handles transmission construction.
“My old company had built a lot of power plants,” Robbins says, “and I had participated in the business development process for selling those deals and getting them under contract, so I was very familiar with the electric power business.”
He also liked the fact that the industry wasn’t as susceptible to business cycle swings as other lines of work and had fairly steady growth. After Robbins was promoted to Senior Vice President, with human resources, accounting, finance and IT reporting to him, he left briefly in 1997 to become Senior Vice President and General Manager of Intellisource Business Services.
Under an agreement with Oglethorpe, Robbins took along the 150-employee services division which performed all of the non-core business such as human resources, accounting, IT and insurance.
One of Robbins’ former peers became the new CEO at Oglethorpe and asked him to come back as Senior VP of finance and administration. Robbins again oversaw a broad range of activities, including risk management and many of the functions that had previously been outsourced. He was named Senior Vice President, Government Relations and Chief Administrative Officer and then became Senior Vice President, Governmental Affairs in 2008.
As the only Oglethorpe staff member devoted to government relations, Robbins has a lot on his plate. New carbon emission rules proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency are “probably the biggest issue that the industry has ever had,” he says.
“The whole industry will have to change the way it operates. If these regulations go in as they’ve been published, this will change the way that power is generated and delivered and what it costs forever – and not in a good way.”
Robbins is already working to educate and influence current members of Congress and regulators on the impact these new regulations would have.
He says that while a lot of coal plants already have shut down, the new EPA rules would shut them down even faster or decrease their output.
“Back in January during the polar vortex, in an area of the country that was very hard-hit, 85 percent of the coal plants that generated the energy during that time will be shut down in the next five years,” says Robbins, who sits on the board of directors of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity.
On December 1, Oglethorpe sent in its final comments on the EPA rule. The final version is expected next June, and would be implemented the following year. The compliance period starts in 2020.
A rule governing existing (coal) plants is Oglethorpe’s biggest problem, Robbins says, while another rule already finalized for new power plants “basically assures that no new coal plant is going to be built in the future for quite some time.”
While the two new nuclear plants at Vogtle will have zero carbon emissions, Robbins is trying to change the rules that give no credit for meeting emission goals.
Another environmental issue involved air pollutants (sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, mercury and fine particulate)... “We have spent more on modifying the power plants,” Robbins says, “than we spent for the plant in the first place. We see this as a strong commitment to being environmentally responsible.”
He works closely with the trade organization in Washington D.C., the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association headed by former Congresswoman Jo Ann Emerson of Missouri.
Oglethorpe is the largest of the 900 cooperatives in the country. Robbins allows that there are complications that come from dealing with 38 members and their diversity between large and small, rural and metro, fast growing and slow growing, etc. “You’ve heard the expression herding cats?” he says. “That certainly fits.”
Robbins also works with the government relations staff of Georgia EMC, one of Oglethorpe’s sister companies, and has a counterpart with another sister company, Georgia Transmission Corporation.
He credits his broad background with enabling him to discuss almost any issue. Having been on Oglethorpe’s executive team since 1992 --except for that two-year stint in Intellisource –Robbins has been in the room for all of Oglethorpe’s strategy discussions.
“So I hear it all first-hand,” he says, “and that is extremely important to being able to go out and do what I do. I know my limitations, though. I know when to bring in the experts, for example, on nuclear or some complicated environmental regulation.”
When not dispatched to Washington or various power plants in Georgia, Robbins enjoys travelling with his wife Julie, an investment manager, particularly to Europe. He has been to vineyards in France, Spain and Italy, as well as in California.
His favorite wine? “All of them,” Robbins says. “I would never tie myself down to one type or style of wine. Right now, I really like the French Rhone wines, reds and whites.”
Back at home in Johns Creek, Robbins likes to cook and match foods with wines. He chops and mixes without using a recipe, which is his creative side coming to the surface.
On the job, though, he is strictly by the book.
“All you have is your integrity,” he says. “It’s a small world up there in Washington and in the General Assembly here in Atlanta, and you have to be trusted.”
Just like he is when it comes to wine.
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