Keeping an Open Mind: How Alumna Catherine Heigel ’95 Found Her Career Path
By: Kelsey Givens
For Catherine Heigel ’95, president of Carolina Water Service, Inc., working in the utility industry offers the opportunity to make a significant difference in the quality of life of her customers.
“I am especially passionate about water because there is such a close public health connection to the product you’re providing and the quality of people’s lives,” she said.
Talking to Heigel, it’s clear she is passionate about her work. But it wasn’t until she took her first job out of law school in South Carolina doing utility and insurance rate regulation that she truly found her calling in the field.
“I didn’t go to Ohio State or graduate from Ohio State saying I want to be a public utility regulatory lawyer. I was looking for a job in a very short window of time and this state government job was available,” she said. “I went into it with an open mind determined to make the most of it and learn everything I can, and I ended up loving it.”
Prior to accepting her current position at Carolina Water Service, Heigel was the director of the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, a position to which she was appointed by then-Governor Nikki Haley. Before that, she had served as president of Duke Energy South Carolina.
“Even though I am no longer a state public health official for South Carolina, I feel like I have the same responsibilities to the public in my role as president of Carolina Water Service,” she said. “I get as much or more satisfaction out of that aspect of the job as I do litigating a rate case before the public service commission or acquiring new businesses. It’s really about making a difference in people’s lives on a broad scale. I’m very fortunate to be able to do that in this role and in the past roles that I have held.”
Over the course of her career, Heigel has worked on various matters involving utilities and their regulation. One of the cases she is most proud of, she said, concerned asking state regulators to approve a financial incentive structure for utility-sponsored energy efficiency programs that put the pursuit of energy efficiency and demand side management on equal footing with financial incentives long enjoyed by utilities to build power plants. Heigel and her team were tasked with convincing utility regulators in several states to reward a utility’s verified energy efficiency savings on par with new power plants.
“The very forward-thinking CEO of Duke Energy at the time, Jim Rogers, wanted the company to pursue energy efficiency as a line of business because it would delay or reduce the need for power plants in the future, and if we could slow the rate of growth of demand for the product, then we could reduce our carbon emissions footprint by retiring older coal plants,” she said. “But the problem is, that’s not how utilities are incentivized. Efficiency is kind of like telling people to stop buying your product. And that doesn’t make financial sense for the utilities without the right financial incentive mechanism in place to keep utilities whole.”
Heigel and her team brought forth a regulatory proposal for utility regulators in Ohio, Indiana, North Carolina, and South Carolina that outlined a way to treat gains in energy efficiency similar to building power plants. Energy efficiency products and services were essentially to be treated for accounting purposes as mini-power plants. Although the concept seemed straightforward, Heigel said, it still took regulators some convincing due to the complex nature of the proposal.
“The devil is always in the details,” Heigel said. “[The plan] sounds great in theory, and in concept it is great, but it was a very difficult financial model to get approved by regulators. Many of them said they thought it was too complicated. We got some traction with settlements in Ohio and Indiana, and we were able to ultimately get approvals of similar settlements in North Carolina and South Carolina. It was a fun case because it challenged traditional thinking about utility incentives and public policy goals. We believed we could advance public policy objectives of reduced emissions and lower electricity consumption by customers while still providing appropriate financial incentives to the utility. This was a case designed to find the win-win-win for customers, the environment and the utility.”
Looking back on her successful career thus far, when people ask Heigel if she has any professional advice, she tells them this: “Take the hard job.”
“Take the job, the project, or the task that nobody wants because that’s where you can distinguish yourself, that’s where you can have the biggest impact. And it’s not without its challenges or its risks, but the reward for a job well done is so much greater.”