By Michael McCord
Hampton Union, Tuesday, March 27, 2012
[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]
HAMPTON -- When Unitil Senior Vice President George Gantz retires at the end of this month, it will be the end of a three-decade era for someone who has had a front-row seat to dramatic changes in the utility industry and the impact it has had on the region.
Gantz, who joined the predecessor company of Unitil in 1983, is the longest-serving senior official at the company. He said one of his main appreciations has been the success of the deregulation of the electricity and natural gas markets. Deregulation began in earnest under the Carter administration in the late 1970s and the changes unfolded during Gantz's Unitil career. His institutional knowledge is so vast, Unitil is making a lengthy interview video of him talking about his career, industry changes and the company's history.
"Being this close to what happened, I have developed a very strong respect for the benefits that functioning competitive markets can bring to consumers," Gantz said. "I'm a strong believer in the benefits of competition."
Gantz, a graduate of Stanford, worked for the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission on the regulatory side before he joined the service company that connected the three small electric and gas companies in Exeter, Hampton and Concord. "I collected three different pay checks a month," Gantz said.
The creation of Unitil in 1984 was an acknowledgment that small, independent power companies faced a difficult road in the competitive and uncertain marketplace of the future. Concord Electric Company had been formed in 1901 and Exeter & Hampton Electric Company was created in 1908. Since Unitil was formed as a holding company, it has evolved into Unitil Energy Systems, Unitil Resources (which is a non-regulated brokerage business), Granite State Gas transmission, Northern Utilities (the natural gas provider), and Fitchburg Gas & Electric, which was created in 1852. Unitil bought Fitchburg Gas & Electric in 1992 from Massachusetts municipalities in the Fitchburg region.
Overall, Until is the state's second-largest utility and serves more than 72,500 electricity customers and 54,000 natural gas customers. Gantz said long before deregulation kicked in, the company's directors made in 1984 what turned out be a crucial economic decision. "We were concerned about the extraordinary rate impacts because of Seabrook," he said. That concern led the company to terminate wholesale electricity contracts with Seabrook's majority owner, Public Service Company of New Hampshire. While Unitil began securing other wholesale electricity options, the more than $5.2 billion cost and lengthy delays to open the first reactor at Seabrook led to Public Service's bankruptcy in 1988, the first public utility to declare bankruptcy since the Great Depression. PSNH, the state's largest electric utility, is the successor company that emerged from the 1988 bankruptcy.
Gantz believes that the creation of Unitil came at the right time to allow the company to take advantage of deregulation, which decoupled power generation from distribution. Unitil's portfolio was almost exclusively distribution. "We were ahead of the curve on the wholesale competitive market," he said. "Retail restructuring turned out to be not so far-fetched a concept. It was challenging, but I think we were able to do that very effectively."
During his time at Unitil, Gantz also witnessed the development of ISO-New England, a product of deregulation that manages electricity generation and distribution in the six New England states.
As the longest-serving management official at Unitil, Gantz has held multiple positions. He assumed his current post as senior vice president of distributed energy resources in September 2009. He was senior vice president of communications and regulation from 1994 until 2003, and held the position of senior vice president of customer services and communications from 2003 until 2009.
Gantz has been the public face of the company during the severe weather events that have hit the region since 2008. "Our CEO joked that we've had four 500-year events in the past few years," Gantz said. The political and public backlash against utilities over the extent and duration of outages following the December 2008 ice storm prompted Unitil to revise its disaster preparation and public communications efforts.
"The lesson of the ice storm is that we discovered while we had built a good and steady organization, in case of major events we needed to be able, at a higher level, to bring in more resources and restructure our communications with local officials and the public," he said. "It's a different world because of technology, and consumers expect more. I have frankly been astonished at how seriously we took the lessons from the ice storm to make us a more-prepared company."
In retirement, Gantz plans to spend more time with his family, enjoying outdoor activities such as kayaking and hiking, and reading more philosophy. He will also consult with Unitil on a part-time basis if needed.
As he looks back on his career, Gantz said if he had been asked 30 years ago what changes he foresaw in the industry, he would have missed the mark. But he does believe one of the most significant changes on the horizon will be the relationship between consumers and their utility companies.
Gantz believes that utilities have to meet the demand for likely innovations such as electric car portals. "My instincts tell me there will still be the basic need for a regulated utility with regulated (natural gas) pipes and wires," he said.
He said the biggest change will come with how utilities and consumers interact with one another through new technologies and smartphone applications. In particular, he thinks consumers will have more choices about electricity use during peak or off-peak periods to meet their personal and economic needs.