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Larry Owens Retires: Led Santa Clara Electric Utility into a Customer-Centric 21st Century

The excellent reputation that Silicon Valley Power—Santa Clara’s City-owned electric utility—enjoys among industrial, commercial and residential customers alike has a lot to do with the far-sighted leadership of Larry Owens. That leadership has been recognized by the Northwest Public Power Association, which honored Owens with its lifetime achievement award in 2015.

After a remarkable 25 years of leadership spanning marketing, customer relations and renewable energy programs, Owens is retiring to pursue some favorite pastimes—boating, birding and scuba diving—and to enjoy his three grandchildren.

Owens has personally navigated the transformation from the Valley of the Heart’s Delight to Silicon Valley. He grew up in San José, where his father, who had a day job in FMC’s irrigation equipment division, had a 15-acre prune and walnut orchard, where Owens worked after school.

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After graduating from Leigh High School, Owens attended West Valley Community College and San José State University—where he was the first student to receive a B.S. in environmental science. Along the way he acquired specializations in chemistry, electrical engineering and energy resource management.

Owens’ first job was as an energy efficiency specialist for the City of San José. When Santa Clara’s electric department had a job opportunity as a home energy specialist, Owens leaped at the opportunity.

From residential home energy audits, Owens jumped into the role of helping some of Silicon Valley’s biggest companies manage their energy usage. In the process, his team developed a two-way relationship with customers that led to many of the utility’s innovative programs.

Over the years, Owens has been ahead of the curve in anticipating how SVP needed to adapt to changing markets and business climate for electric utilities.

“When California utilities were facing deregulation, it was clear there needed to be more focus on the customer,” he said. “We needed to be more customer-centric. I became a customer advocate, bringing the customer’s voice to the conversation.” He calls it going “beyond the meter.”

“We get feedback from customers on what they need us to be,” he said. “We went through their quality and vendor training—for example, Intel’s quality score card for rating utility vendors every quarter. All those metrics help us work better together. Our customers have helped us become a world class utility.”

Results tell the story, according to Owens. “We have the lowest average costs of any electric utility in California. Our reliability is outstanding. We offer a 100 percent green power option. Currently our City’s customers save $150 million a year with SVP, more than $25 million of that is saved by residents. Our customers expect us to do the right thing on their behalf.”

During Owens’ tenure many of the utility’s most forward-looking new services debuted: the green power and solar energy programs, a municipal Wi-Fi network and a fiber optic network that makes Santa Clara an attractive location for businesses. Many of the new services grew out of the utility’s own business needs.

For example, the municipal free Wi-Fi network grew from a smart meter initiative. A communications network was needed and SVP leveraged the opportunity to buy the assets of a bankrupt wireless company to solve its business problem while piggybacking a free service for the community.

Owens leaves more than innovative and forward-looking programs. He leaves a philosophical and operational legacy that will serve the City into the future.

“Santa Clara is a very dynamic community and I’ve been very proud to be a part of it,” he said. “I never dreamed when I got a degree in environmental science that I would be given an opportunity to have such an impact.”

Owens gives credit where credit is due. “I would never have been able to accomplish what was accomplished without amazing support from both my staff and the people I worked for,” he said, “They were always very nice when they were telling me I was wrong. It was never my goal to be right. It was always my goal to foster thoughtful and purposeful action.”

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