Indian-American CEO of top U.S. power market is under fire even before he starts

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The incoming head of the largest U.S. power market is under pressure even before he begins his new job.

Manu Asthana (Photo: LinkedIn)

A consumer watchdog has accused Manu Asthana — who starts as chief executive officer of PJM Interconnection on Jan. 1 — of mismanagement at his previous company. That risks casting a shadow over his new role, in which he has to implement an overhaul ordered by federal regulators.

Asthana declined to comment on the mismanagement allegations. PJM Chairman Ake Almgren defended Asthana’s tenure as the head of Direct Energy Inc.’s North America Home division, saying the executive “implemented organizational changes and addressed practices that were viewed as misleading or unfair.”

During Asthana’s time at Direct Energy, the retail power provider paid fines for abusing laws or regulations in Texas, Connecticut and other states. Tyson Slocum, director of energy at Public Citizen, sent a letter dated Dec. 12 to PJM’s board complaining of its “troubling” CEO selection.

“He led a retail power outfit that ripped off consumers,” Slocum, a member of PJM’s Public Interest & Environmental Organizations User Group, said in an interview. “Direct Energy was notorious for breaking the rules while he was there. The board needs explain why he’s fit for the job.”

The proposed revamp that Asthana is set to take on at PJM — which serves 65 million people from Washington, D.C. to Chicago — could increase costs for consumers by $1.6 billion to $8.4 billion a year, depending on how it’s implemented.

Jeffrey Shields, a PJM spokesman, declined to comment beyond the board’s Dec. 18 letter to Slocum in which Almgren defended Asthana.

“Direct Energy works to deliver value to customers in all states where we operate,” company spokesman Jesse Dickerman said. “In the event that regulators seek additional information about our operations we work closely with them to resolve any issues that are identified.”

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