Profile: Melissa Lavinson works the middle ground

There’s just over 2,400 miles between Melissa Lavinson’s home in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood of Washington, D.C., and her company’s headquarters in San Francisco — a distance she knows all too well.

Lavinson, 43, is the vice president of federal affairs for the Pacific Gas and Electric Co. — or PG&E, as it’s better known in California. It’s not uncommon for her to take one or two red-eye flights across the country per week. And despite the distance, she says she stays very much aware of the 15 million people in the Golden State dependent on her work.

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Born in Princeton, N.J., the strawberry blonde proudly carries the Jersey culture with her, crediting her Garden State upbringing for the virtue of tenacity that, she says, has helped her break through barriers on Capitol Hill.

She is on the founding board of the Women’s Energy Network’s D.C. chapter, which affords women from all areas of Capitol Hill’s energy sector the opportunity to talk law, policy and parenting.

She’s single-handedly responsible for making the lobbyist-lawmaker Congressional Hockey Challenge co-ed in 2011, and manages to balance her bicoastal corporate identity with coaching her 9-year-old daughter’s soccer team.

“The physical activity keeps me very grounded and centered, it helps clear your mind,” she said while sitting in her Washington office overlooking Chinatown. “And I think it’s great for young women and girls. The whole aspect of working as a team — and understanding that dynamic — is really important and has been very helpful in my adult life and my career.”

If there’s something Lavinson knows, it’s teamwork. In this era of deep partisan political division, she is focused on how it’s more beneficial to work together than pick sides. In the same day, for instance, she can mix with the likes of the Golden State’s Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Senate subcommittee on Energy and Water, and Rust Belt Republican Rep. Fred Upton (Mich.), chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce — all the while leaving any elbow throwing at the ice rink.

“It’s not all about you, it’s about the dynamic of the team,” she said. “If the team wins, you win.”

Her career at PG&E began in 1997, which coincided with California’s experimentation with energy market deregulation. At the time, she worked for one of PG&E’s holding companies and helped to open the first wind turbine plant in Madison, N.Y.

“I was there at the groundbreaking and it was really small,” she said, laughing. “But it was such a big deal at the time.”
PG&E’s National Energy Group broke ground on the project in 2000, only several miles away from the college where Lavinson first became inspired by sustainable energy practices. Though it only consisted of seven windmills, it was at the time the largest wind-generating facility in the eastern United States.

Before joining the California-based gas and utilities giant, Lavinson had an active hand in sustainable energy policy, working for two different consulting firms.

Right after graduating from Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., she started at Washington, D.C.-based ICF Consulting, calling it the “quintessential D.C., 24/7” job. As she began work in the firm’s climate change practice, the U.S. was entering the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“I remember I probably slept at the office three nights a week. But it was fun,” Lavinson said. “It was at a time where there wasn’t really Internet or email or all the fancy printing packages that we have now.”

She describes standing over a mammoth copy machine at 3 a.m. because of a small change in a thousand-page proposal.

“You’d be standing there going, ‘Oh my God, I can’t print this whole thing over again, so I’m going to cut and paste numbers and run it through the Xerox machine,’ ” Lavinson reminiscences, almost with a sense of glee.

Then, following an urge to move out West, she landed a job at the Oakland, Calif.-based MRW and Associates, where she spent five years, until PG&E came calling.

Ironically, while working on PG&E’s competitive side, Lavinson ended up anywhere but the West Coast — Atlantic City, N.J., Madison, N.Y., Boston and Salem, Mass. — trying to expand the company’s energy markets.

Following the California energy crisis and the ensuing Enron scandal in 2001, PG&E shed its holding company and Lavinson ended up in the Washington office, focused on the parent company’s utilities operation.

Looking forward, this year should prove to be another busy one, as President Obama is expected to roll out an aggressive energy and climate agenda. The Environmental Protection Agency, Lavinson says, is moving forward with its authority to regulate greenhouse gasses, and it’s her job to make sure the federal plan is compatible with California’s existing system.

With an ongoing workload in a constantly evolving sector, it comes as no surprise that Lavinson craves diversions that offer the luxury of a concrete beginning, middle and end. In addition to sports, she says, cooking is another area in which solace can be found, for that very reason.

“The interesting thing about this job is that it’s never done. There might be a beginning, but there is no end. Whereas, I find cooking so wonderful because there is a beginning and an end, and you see your product,” she says, adding with a sign of relief that “you have control over how it turns out.

“This job, so much of it, you do the best you can but so much of it is out of your control.”