5 Questions: BC Hydro CEO Chris O’Riley talks energy transition, reconciliation and Site C’s legacy

BC Hydro is playing a big part in energy transition

1. Since starting at BC Hydro as an engineer-in-training over 30 years ago, you’ve spent your entire career with the company or a subsidiary of it. What has kept you on board for so long?

I don’t think I intended to do this when I started, but you make decisions along the way and the next thing you know you’ve been here for 33 years. For me, I’ve always felt a really good fit between my values and the values of the organization.

I think that’s the fundamental thing and I’ve always felt at home here as a result of that. It’s a common thing when people retire that the first thing they talk about is the people. I also think it’s such interesting work. I’ve had a whole bunch of different jobs and they’ve always been challenging and fascinating. We’re always trying to thread a needle between a whole series of objectives, whether they’re financial, environmental or social.

2. How has the organization evolved since you first became a part of it?

When I started, it was more internally focused. We finished up a lot of the big capital projects and the company shed a lot of people in the ’80s, which was a traumatic thing after two decades of major building. In those days, the assets were relatively new and there wasn’t an external market like today—it was just a different world. I’ve had the privilege to be here as the market on the West Coast, the western third of North America, opened up. We were a big part of that. And I was here as we started to reinvest in our assets and rebuild them, and then as we moved beyond “keeping the lights on,” which is how people used to talk about the work here. We’re looking at much bigger goals, particularly around climate action and reconciliation. The way you make electricity was pretty much perfected 100 years ago—it’s very similar. But everything around it is different.

3. You mentioned climate action and reconciliation. What are the major challenges you’re facing today as an organization?

We’re playing a big part in the energy transition. It’s a very significant change for society, with a lot of demands. BC Hydro is right in the middle of that, with customers who rely on electrification to reduce their own carbon footprint. And we have a role as the second-largest land owners in the province (in Western colonial terms) after the provincial government. That puts us right at the forefront of reconciliation. We have some big goals in working with Indigenous peoples and continuing to build the relationships we have. The third one is that we have to be more resilient as a company, which includes responding to more challenging environments, many of which are posed by climate change—fires, floods, droughts. The last thing is managing the rates for customers—we have to make sure the result is affordable for the people of B.C.

4. The Site C dam is nearing completion. It’s been a controversial project. Ultimately, how do you think the project will be viewed by history?

I’ve been overseeing the construction since 2015 through all the ups and downs over eight years. It’s been a more difficult project than anyone envisioned and that’s resulted in a much higher cost. But we’ve had some things go our way. We were able to finance it at lower rates than planned, and they were locked in before the rates rose—we’re benefiting from inflation now. I think we’re going to be very happy to have it—its product will be valuable and necessary. All of our plants are expensive when they come into service. Then the costs get amortized—there’s always some inflation and the effect of that becomes diminished. We’re forecasting to rely on it for our customers in the very near term.

5. Even if you don’t stick around BC Hydro for another 30 years, what do you think the company and province will look like then?

[Laughs] Well, we have a lot of people starting here today at the beginning of their career—some of those people might be here in 30 years. At the highest level, B.C. is going to be an attractive place to live. It already is today and there’s going to be more of us here. We’ll still have resources that the world wants. I think we’ll be larger, more diverse, more interesting. Notably, by 2053, we better have met our climate targets and achieved our emissions goals. I would hope that BC Hydro will have had a big role in electrification and in supporting our customers. Other pathways to emissions reductions will have been successful as well, like carbon sequestration and negative emissions technologies. Significant building efficiency targets will have been met, and carbon will be out of the natural gas system. We need all of those pathways to be engaged.

Hobbies: I’m learning to play the guitar. It’s really challenging.

Most memorable concert: I’m a big U2 fan—I’ve seen them a number of times.

Last book you read: Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice by Bill Browder.

Pet peeve: I try to be positive… There are lots of frustrations in society. I’m trying not to have pet peeves.

Favourite place in B.C.: We’re very fortunate to have a place in the Gulf Islands, so that’d be it.