An interview with Cheryl LaFleur ’75 S75 P08 P10, a Commissioner of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Check out her LinkedIn Profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/cheryl-lafleur-26899666/
JPM: What did you study at Princeton? What did you do outside of class? What was your senior thesis about?
CLaF: I graduated in 1975 and majored in politics, and also studied a lot of classics (we didn't have minors in those days). My thesis was on The Influence of the Theory of Mixed Government on the American Constitution. It bridged both my fields as I read a lot of original work, especially by John Adams, drawing on the political philosophy of Polybius and Aristotle.
I graduated in three years so my extracurricular activities were limited, but my primary one was writing for the Daily Princetonian.
JPM: What is your current job title?
CLaF: I am a Commissioner on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). We are a five-member bipartisan, independent regulatory agency with authority over interstate electric transmission, natural gas pipelines, oil pipelines, hydroelectric power, electric markets, and the reliability of the electric grid. Each Commissioner is appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, with generally three coming from the president's party and two from the other party.
I was appointed by President Obama in 2010 and again in 2014, and am serving a term that goes until 2019. Also, I acted as chairman twice, once from 2013-2015 and again for several months in 2017, making me the only person to be chairman twice.
JPM: Tell us about the day-to-day for your job?
CLaF: At FERC, we vote out about 1000 orders a year on electric and gas rates, market issues, project permitting, reliability standards, enforcement proceedings, and a wide spectrum of energy issues. It includes both deciding specific disputes or applications or issuing regulations on areas in our authority. So a large part of my job is deciding on those orders and negotiating language, or writing separately if I do not agree with the majority. As an agency, we also have administrative authority over reliability/grid security, hydro safety, and market rules. I am a frequent speaker on energy issues and a lot of my time is spent meeting with people from all sectors of the energy and environmental world, in DC and around the country.
Overall, FERC has about 1500 employees, but I have a team of 7 in my personal office, including 4 advisors (akin to law clerks) who work on the cases with me. Incidentally, I hire Princeton interns in my office every summer through the Princeton In Civic Service (PICS) program, and they have been a great addition to the work of the office. I have also helped create PICS internships in other FERC offices. All of our interns have been terrific, and I am delighted that several stayed in energy after graduation.
JPM: What has your overall career path been like? Why did you make specific pivots/switches along the way?
CLaF: I have had three major segments of my career: private practice of law, the electric industry, and government.
Like many people (at least in my generation), I ended up in the energy world by happenstance, but it has been the primary focus of my career for the past 30+ years.
Right after Princeton I went to Harvard Law School, with ill-defined thoughts of a career in mental health law. When I graduated from law school in 1978, I had a boatload of loans and went to a law firm-- Ropes and Gray in Boston-- thinking I would stay a few years and pay them off. I ended up staying 8 years, working primarily on civil litigation and white collar defense work (not energy). I learned a lot, but it was not where I was meant to spend my career.
After I had my first child in 1985, I decided to try to go to an in-house legal department for a while, hoping for better work-life balance than in the law firm while my son was little. Through someone I had met on a case, I ended up interviewing at New England Electric System (a regional electric company in New England that is now part of National Grid). When I landed there in the legal department, I discovered pretty quickly that I loved the work and that was what I wanted to do with my career. I ended up staying 21 years! From the legal department, I had a chance to be assistant and speech writer for the CEO, which set me on a path to management. I held a series of jobs of progressively greater responsibility in both operating and legal/regulatory parts of the company. I ran some of the first-generation energy conservation programs in the early 1990s, worked on industry restructuring and the opening of the competitive wholesale market in New England (ISO-NE) in 1997, and worked one of the first international utility mergers when we merged with National Grid in 2000. As of 2006, I was US COO when our US CEO left and I ran the US business for almost a year on an acting basis while they did a CEO search. I was the "inside candidate," but the board chose an outside candidate and I retired from the company at the end of 2007, not sure what I would do next.
I had a "non-compete" agreement that kept me out of energy for two years, so I did a lot of nonprofit work (ran a small educational nonprofit for a while) while I figured out what to do next in my career. In 2009, I received an unexpected call from the (Obama) White House about the FERC seat, to which I was ultimately appointed and which I still hold. I feel extraordinarily lucky that I got that call (someone I had networked with had given them my name). It has been an amazing gig for the past 7 years, allowing me to learn a lot more about the energy opportunities and challenges in all parts of the country and feel like I am making a difference on important energy issues.
I always say "Life is a movie, not a snapshot"-- you have different chapters in your career, with ups and downs, and things keep changing. What you learn and the people who meet and work with along the way are what stays with you.
JPM: In what ways did Princeton prepare you for what you are doing after graduation?
CLaF: Well, I obviously did not major in something specifically pre-professional like electrical engineering, though politics is quite relevant to a heavily-regulated field like energy.
A lot of what I work on (cybersecurity, wind and solar energy, computer algorithms to run the energy dispatch) uses technology that wasn't even invented when I was at Princeton 40+ years ago. I think what Princeton mainly taught me was how to think, how to write, and how to work hard. It sounds corny, but you really go to college to learn to learn, because that is what you need to do for your whole career--keep learning and adapting to new things.
Also, I was the first person in my family to go to college, and just going to Princeton opened up a whole world of opportunities for me that I would never had had otherwise.
JPM: What is the most surprising thing about energy that you have learned about since graduation?
CLaF: I think there is a misconception that a lot of the energy field, especially electricity, is pretty staid and unchanging. Have you heard the old saw that "If Alexander Graham Bell woke up today he wouldn't even recognize a telephone, but if Thomas Edison woke up he would feel right at home"? Well, that is totally untrue-- not only now, but for the whole time I have worked in energy since 1986.
When I first got into energy, we were coping with the aftermath of the OPEC oil embargo and the Chernobyl nuclear accident, and figuring out where we would get our electricity in the future, negotiating with the first-generation independent power producers, and adapting our grid to new technologies. Through the growth of the merchant generation model and competitive markets, to the mergers around the turn of the century, to the advent of new renewable and storage technologies, it has never stopped changing.
Right now we are dealing with the tremendous growth in domestic natural gas and renewable technologies, which has driven huge change in markets and infrastructure, and figuring out how to adapt the energy system to the reality of global climate change.
JPM: Is there anything in energy that currently excites you?
CLaF: Well, pretty much everything or I wouldn't keep working so hard at it. But more than anything else, the intersection of how we keep moving forward on energy to propel the economy while responding to climate change is the big challenge right now and for the foreseeable future.
JPM: Do you have a recommendation/tidbit of advice for current students?
CLaF: There is no one right major, so major in what you love. We especially need engineers, lawyers, economists, and just good thinkers. I strongly encourage students to get involved in the energy and environmental fields in the summer and after graduation-- in the private sector, in state or federal government, or in nongovernmental organizations. I have found it to be a tremendously rewarding career, and a field that is critical to every other part of our society and economy. I think the PUEA is a great way for students to engage. Finally, I encourage for students to apply to FERC for summer internships or after graduation as opportunities arise.