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PG&E’s Bolt of Energy

June 15, 2017, 10:30 AM UTC

CEO Geisha Williams is a classic immigrant success story. Now, as head of California’s largest utility, she’s embracing a business rocked by powerful change.

When the time came and the Jimenez family was finally permitted to leave Cuba after 18 months of trying, the government gave them barely a matter of days to go. Even at age 5, Geisha understood there was little time for questions, and none for packing toys or books. They would leave their government-owned apartment with whatever they could carry, with just enough time for her dad to visit his parents and say goodbye. The family boarded a plane for Miami and then continued on to St. Paul, where their only American relative, an elderly aunt, lived at the time. The day they arrived in America was the first time any of them saw snow.

That was March 1967. Fifty years later, almost to the day, Geisha Jimenez made business history. Now 55 and known by her married name, Williams, she became the first Latina CEO of a Fortune 500 company—in this instance PG&E Corp., the $17.7 billion (revenues) parent of the venerable Pacific Gas & Electric Co.

PG&E ranks no. 157 on the 2017 Fortune 500.

Williams is taking over at a time of accelerating change in her industry. Indeed, nowhere are the barricades being stormed more aggressively than in PG&E’s home, California, whose mandate for change is more audacious than any other state’s: Its law requires that 50% of utilities’ power be generated by renewable sources by 2030. Under Williams, who ran the company’s electric unit before becoming CEO, PG&E charged past its most recent renewables target years ahead of schedule.

Certainly, the logistics of maintaining a power grid have always been daunting; the regulations, suffocating. But the business equation used to be simple: (1) Produce electricity or gas at a few massive plants, (2) deliver it to customers, and (3) collect money.

Today the complexity has increased exponentially. Utilities are transforming themselves into what Williams calls “platforms,” hubs that are as important for their ability to receive power from other entities as they are for their ability to produce and distribute their own juice. For example, thousands of families not only have solar panels on the roofs of their houses but also have the right to sell electricity back to PG&E.

That’s only the tip of the turbine when it comes to supply these days. There’s wind power, of course, biomass, and other ­alternative sources. PG&E is also required to buy electricity from independent power producers. There are even newer players, in the form of energy spinoffs from some of the largest companies in the country: Google, Amazon, and before long, Apple.

Meanwhile, the rise of electric cars—half of all U.S. electric vehicles (EVs) are in California—means PG&E needs to deliver electricity in places where it was never needed before. Throw in the eternal goal of developing large-scale electric storage, and the result is a business that scarcely resembles the sleepy old utility of yore.

Williams photographed on Treasure Island, with San Francisco, PG&E’s home city, in the background.Drew Kelly for Fortune
Drew Kelly for Fortune

That means rethinking not only the grid—but also how to pay for it. “The new model needs to reflect the new reality,” says Williams. It’s no longer logical to charge customers by kilowatt-hour, she maintains. Williams is pondering different pricing models, including ones in which customers would pay PG&E a fee to keep the whole sprawling system in balance. Her idea is to change the yardstick, just as telecommunications companies did when people stopped talking on the phone: Instead of charging customers per minute, they now bill by gigabyte of data.

Williams rose at PG&E in large part because she has embraced the rise of renewables. And she shows every sign of continuing to welcome dramatic change. As she puts it, “I’ve got revolutionary blood in my blood.”

Williams’s parents were political dissidents in Cuba. They initially supported Fidel Castro, but even then there were hints of their affinity for America in the name they gave their daughter. They took it from the title of a John Wayne flick, The Barbarian and the Geisha, which has to be the only movie in which the aging cowboy was seen on-screen wearing a kimono. (“At least they didn’t name you after the barbarian,” goes the family joke.)

Her parents became disillusioned with Castro after he began militarizing and suppressing free speech. They began attending and organizing counterrevolutionary meetings in the early 1960s. One day, when Geisha was 10 months old, her father, Alberto, disappeared. Her mother, Ana, was told he was dead. Ana refused to believe it; people in Cuba disappeared and reappeared constantly. Eventually, she found him at a local prison, where he was held for three years before he was released for lack of evidence.

A young Geisha Williams in Cuba.Courtesy of Geisha Williams
Courtesy of Geisha Williams

After Alberto’s stay in prison, the family decided to flee to the U.S., where, thanks to the Cold War, Cubans could gain near-automatic admittance. Castro’s government didn’t make it easy for them, but they finally departed on March 8, 1967.

Like many immigrants before them, Alberto and Ana took menial jobs in their new country. A welder by trade, he worked in factories during the day—including stints making cardboard boxes and vinyl tablecloths—and washed dishes at local eateries at night. She cut embroidery by the piece. Eventually they saved enough to buy a small grocery store they called La Guajira (peasant girl), in Jersey City, N.J., where they moved shortly after their first winter in St. Paul. They sold that grocery to buy another and inched their way up to become part owners of a supermarket in Newark.

Williams spent most of her time outside of school at the family’s groceries. She would do her homework while perched on a stack of 25-pound bags of rice in the stock room, then pitch in as needed. Her favorite role was cashier, she says, because she loved counting and making change. To this day, she credits that experience as her reason for liking math and eventually becoming an engineer—that and the fact that she didn’t speak any English when she first went to school. “I had a comfort in math because I was still learning the language,” Williams says.

Geisha Williams’ parents in one of the succession of grocery stores they owned in New Jersey.Courtesy of Geisha Williams
Courtesy of Geisha Williams

Her first American teacher thought she was deaf, but by age 7 she was the family’s main translator, involved in discussions with accountants, lawyers, and property managers. Between keeping up with her schoolwork, helping out at her family’s businesses, and taking care of her younger brother, Williams didn’t have time for much else. Her husband, Jay, says his wife was “never a kid,” but Williams doesn’t see it that way. She had a different kind of childhood, not a lack of one. “I liked helping my parents, feeling useful, feeling smart,” she insists. “I enjoyed knowing that I was helping somehow.”

Geisha Williams isn’t the first person whose life included moments of happenstance—but her ability to make the most of them is striking. She pursued engineering in college largely because her high school math teacher suggested it and her parents approved. Her entry into the energy business was even more random. While attending the University of Miami and in need of a summer job, she saw a yellow sticky note on a job postings board. It read, “Engineers wanted. Call Rick.” She called Rick, and he hired her.

She spent that summer working as a marketing service representative for Florida Power & Light. Her job was to show customers how to make their homes more energy-efficient. Williams would measure their windows and calculate how much they could save if they added insulation here, window film there. It was fun, she says, except for the blue polyester uniform—“so hot, so uncomfortable”—and crawling through attics in sweltering Miami. “I would get home at the end of the day and be all sweaty and have fiberglass in my hair, and my mom would ask, ‘Why are you a technician?’ ” Williams laughs. “But I loved it.” The company tracked customers’ energy usage, and her record that summer was fantastic. The families she visited followed through with her power-saving suggestions.

She became attracted to the idea of a career in energy. In her view, it’s “such an enabler of everything we do.” When she graduated, FPL was the only company she applied to. She ended up staying for 24 years, during which she held positions across the customer service, marketing, external affairs, and electric operations departments.

Williams’ mother and father in Key West, Fla., long after they moved away from Cuba.Courtesy of Geisha Williams
Courtesy of Geisha Williams

Williams says it never occurred to her that she could run a company one day. But early on at FPL, a pep talk altered her perspective. It came from an older manager named Clark Cook, who told her, “Someday, somebody has to run this company. Why not you?” Asked what unique quality he saw, Cook chuckles and admits he offered similar encouraging words to many a young employee. (One possible hint: Cook says that the much more junior Williams threw him out of her office during one of their first meetings because he was smoking. “She was very well-liked,” he says, “but also tough as nails.”)

She may not have been the only one to receive Cook’s support—but nobody took it further than Williams. “That conversation was such a turning point,” she says today. “I went from thinking I could be a manager to thinking I could do something much bigger than that.”

Williams stayed at FPL till 2007, when she decamped for PG&E. The California utility stalwart had long been viewed as the gold standard in its business. It powered California’s economic boom and was an early leader in renewable energy. But Williams arrived at a precarious time: The company was between two traumas. PG&E had been hammered by energy deregulation in 2000, which led to a statewide power crisis and later, a humiliating trip to Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. Then in 2010 a PG&E gas line in San Bruno exploded and killed eight people in a fireball that destroyed 38 houses. It was the worst disaster in company history.

PG&E—which ultimately paid $1.7 billion in fines and penalties and was later found criminally responsible for shoddy pipeline management—had to spend years working to improve its gas infrastructure and trying to restore its reputation.

It helped Williams that she was on the electricity side of the business at the time—and that she has a reputation for integrity. Equally important, she was able to give the unit a crucial upgrade. “Geisha transformed us from old grid to grid of the future,” says her predecessor as CEO, Tony Earley. Under her leadership, the company invested $15 billion in modernizing its electricity infrastructure, including spending on “smart” meters (which allow companies to monitor use remotely), auto-switching devices that allow employees to monitor usage and outages from a distance, and technology that helps the grid “self-heal” by rerouting electricity around a damaged power line. All of that has helped PG&E achieve the best electric reliability in its history.

Williams also played a crucial role in transforming the electricity business into a leader in clean energy. During her tenure as president, PG&E connected more solar rooftops and supported more EVs than any other energy company in the U.S. With her at the helm of the company’s electricity business, PG&E reached its 2020 target—to generate 33% of its electricity from renewable sources—three years early. The company is six points above the state average. And now Williams has announced that PG&E will aim to exceed California’s 2030 target—50%—by five percentage points.

Williams’s people skills have also been a boon to her career. “She’s got this mix of blue collar and white collar, can talk tough issues and simple issues—and all in this disarming way,” says John Simon, the company’s general counsel, who has worked with Williams for a decade.

Her biggest diplomatic triumph came in her decision to decommission Diablo Canyon, California’s last nuclear plant, beginning in 2024. Closing down an old nuclear facility is more controversial than one might think. The tricky part was winning support from a disparate group of sometimes contentious stakeholders, including environmental groups, who feared that the company might replace the plant’s power with carbon-belching fossil-fuel sources. Committing to a greenhouse-gas-free plan, Williams soothed the constituencies and earned their support. “I haven’t seen anything like this kind of cooperation,” says Ralph Cavanagh, codirector of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s energy program. Adds former CEO Earley, “Pulling that together was a real tour de force. He calls the deal the “final exam” in her quest to become the new chief.

Williams, of course, faces plenty more tests, but, typically, she’s enthusiastic. She calls electric transportation the “single biggest opportunity to really make a meaningful impact on reducing greenhouse gases.” To that end, she plans to invest $130 million over the next three years to install 7,500 EV charging stations.

Another major challenge is storage. The utility’s biggest renewable resource is solar power—it connects some 6,000 new solar customers per month last year—but the obvious problem is it fizzles when the sun sets. Being able to better store energy from the sun would dramatically increase its utilization. PG&E expects to procure 580 megawatts of storage capacity—enough to power roughly half-a-million homes for a year—by 2020.

Williams sees PG&E’s future role as one of grid administrator and connector of distributed energy resources like solar panels, EVs, and battery storage facilities. Together with General Electric, Tesla, and Green Charge, PG&E is testing this idea in a pilot project in San Jose. A few dozen residential and commercial customers were given solar panels and substantial batteries. PG&E is regulating the entire ecosystem. Discussing the future leaves Williams, um, charged up. “How lucky am I! How privileged am I!” she exclaims at one point. A half-century after immigrating to the U.S., she’s still grateful—and energized.

A version of this article appears in the June 15, 2017 issue of Fortune with the headline “A Bolt of Energy.”