Girl Power: Catherine Stempien powers up the Tampa Bay area

Catherine Stempien, Florida state president of Duke Energy (NYSE: DUK), is proud to lead a company that has a positive impact on people’s lives every day. She points to the fact that Duke Energy powers hospitals, schools, homes, and everything in between, to help customers stay safe and comfortable.

However, the company isn’t just concerned with keeping the lights on. It’s also looking towards new ways of generating energy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and its environmental footprint. Those efforts are paying off.

According to the Duke’s recently released Sustainability Report, over the past year it grew its renewable energy capacity by almost 20 percent, from 5,400 megawatts to more than 6,400 MW. That’s enough renewable energy to power more than 1 million homes at peak production.

The report also states that combining nuclear, renewables, and hydroelectric power, about 40 percent of the company’s electric generation puts out no greenhouse gas emissions. It’s no wonder that for 12 straight years, Duke Energy has been named to the Dow Jones Sustainability Index of companies for North America.

While Connecticut-born and raised Stempien is devoted to her job, she makes sure to balance her work with plenty of family time, travelling, and charitable giving. Read on as she shares about who helped shape her into the leader she is today, what excites her about the Tampa Bay area, and what she sees as the future of energy.

Where did you grow up? In what kind of family and neighborhood?

I grew up in the exurbs of Hartford, Connecticut. It was a very rural, small-town American kind of place. My parents were middle-class office workers – my mother was the first in her family to go to college, and my father’s family was very involved in community building. Education and community involvement were critical aspects of our upbringing. My parents put a second mortgage on their house, and my mother made a lot of my clothes so they could save up money to put me and my two sisters through college without loans.

Did you have any early heroes or mentors?

I would point to two early bosses I had as mentors – both male, and both of whom never treated me differently from any of the guys. I was a bit blessed to start my career believing that there were no differences in the boardroom or the courtroom or the general office when it came to gender. I was able to learn my craft and develop skills. They also supported me in making sure I had equal pay and opportunities. I have learned the importance of not only mentoring, but of sponsoring people. When you go out on a limb to recognize and push someone along – that’s what often makes the difference in someone’s career.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I enjoy knowing that we have a positive impact on people’s lives every single day. We power hospitals that care for people, schools that educate people, restaurants that feed people, the traffic lights that keep people safe and everything in between. The men and women I work with every day care deeply about the important mission that we have in providing electricity to power people’s lives. Especially in times of need like the recent impacts from Hurricane Michael, they make personal sacrifices, put their families on hold and work long hours to make sure our customers can get power. 

How do you spend your vacations?

I have been very fortunate that I have been able to travel all over the world with my family. I’ve been to places like Nepal, Iceland, Argentina, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. But I also have been going to the same small town in Maine every year for the Fourth of July for almost 20 years. We celebrate with long-time friends and enjoy the beauty of the coast, including the best lobster in the world. It is a quiet place where I can recharge.

Do you support any charities, and if so, which organizations and why?

I support a lot of organizations – environmental, educational, health and human services – but ones that focus on economic mobility and fighting for equality are especially close to my heart. I served on the board of the YWCA Central Carolinas for many years. Its mission to “eliminate racism, empower women and promote peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all” is lofty, but their programs are making a difference in providing a safe place for women and their families facing instability and creating an empowering place for children to reach higher education goals that go to breaking the cycle of poverty. I look forward to getting more involved in the Tampa Bay community.

What excites you about the future of Tampa Bay?

I love that the community comes together to solve critical issues that impact us for the future. The restoration and recovery of Tampa Bay is a fabulous success story. This success is being built on as our communities are championing sustainability as a model for the future. It’s exciting to see our area leading in innovation and sustainability – Mayor Rick Kriseman’s pledge to transition to 100 percent clean, renewable energy and state Sen. Jeff Brandes’ support for autonomous vehicles, are just some of the examples. 

What excites you about the future of energy?

So much is changing – we are on the cusp of making significant advances in the way power is produced, delivered and consumed. We’re delivering on a multiyear plan to build a stronger, smarter, more resilient energy grid. It’s about getting better at preparing and responding to whatever each day brings, especially during storm season. This goes well beyond the status quo of performing regular maintenance on the electric system, managing vegetation and responding to outages.

Through targeted undergrounding, installation of self-optimizing grids and replacement of aging equipment, we’re creating an electric infrastructure that is more resistant to storm damage and other physical and cyber threats. This means we can avoid many outages and are able to restore power faster if damage occurs. We’re making these strategic investments based on data that identifies historically poor-performing circuits. We know these investments will strengthen thousands of miles of power lines across central Florida.

We’re also preparing for the future of energy by meeting customer demands for greater insight into their energy usage each day and every season. We’re doing this through technology. In the coming years, you’ll see new smart meters that will enable customers to better control their energy use, along with hundreds of electric vehicle charging stations throughout our service areas to provide fast, reliable battery charging.

Customers have also let us know that they want renewable energy choices, and we’re dedicated to providing solar energy in an affordable, reliable and sustainable way. Through 2022, Duke Energy Florida plans to invest an estimated $1 billion to construct or acquire 700 megawatts of cost-effective solar power plants – in addition to the solar power plants we already have. This accelerates our previous 10-year solar installation plan by maximizing the renewable energy offered right here in our own Sunshine State. 

In short, I find all of this exciting, because at the end of the day, it still comes down to having a positive impact on people’s lives.

What are the biggest challenges facing energy companies?

So much is changing – whether it’s technology or the wants and needs of our customers. We pride ourselves on being here for the long haul – through economic downturns, natural disasters, flavors of the day – but we also have to make sure customers are seeing the value from the services we offer and that they understand we understand the value of their dollar. We have to be thoughtful and deliberate in making investments, but also agile and nimble in adjusting to new technologies. ♦

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