CEO Jessica McDonald builds big at BC Hydro

CAPITAL GAINS | BC Hydro CEO Jessica McDonald has begun an era of building major infrastructure projects for the Crown corporation

Jessica McDonald is steering the crown giant through one of the most ambitious, and challenging, periods in its history

When we speak in early May, BC Hydro CEO Jessica McDonald is just returning from a trip to the Peace River region in northeast B.C. There, she saw the progress of construction on the $9-billion Site C dam project, including a temporary construction bridge across the river, banks cleared of trees and shored up, and mulching and spreading of waste wood to keep the dust down.

She stayed for two nights in the camp, which will eventually host 1,600 workers over the expected nine years of construction, and saw the beginnings of all the amenities that will soon exist: a dining hall, offices, recreational areas for television and ping pong, and a movie theatre. “There was a really great spirit amongst the workers,” she says. “It reminded me a lot of a pioneer town in modern days.”

McDonald is, if not a pioneer, certainly staking new territory. She took over the Crown corporation in May 2014—just in time to launch a decade of spending on capital projects totalling $1.7 billion per year, not including the price tag of Site C. “That’s a new scope and scale for the company,” she says. “It has obviously in its past been a company that builds major infrastructure, then went through a couple decades where the focus was on operating and maintaining those assets. Now I think permanently it’s both of those things.”

That infrastructure portfolio includes between 550 and 600 capital projects. Among the highlights of 2015, McDonald points to about $3-billion worth of new and refurbished assets that began operation, including the Interior-Lower Mainland transmission line, a sixth turbine at the Mica Dam north of Revelstoke and a major spillway gate program at Castlegar’s Keenleyside Dam.

But the crown jewel in the capital program is Site C, which is projected to provide enough energy to power the equivalent of 450,000 homes per year. Two First Nations have outstanding court challenges to the dam, which will flood more than 5,000 hectares, and opposition remains from residents and landowners. But McDonald’s trip to the Peace River region also included time in Fort St. John, where she met with Mayor Lori Ackerman and signed a community measures agreement designed to mitigate the impacts of the project. Similar agreements are being negotiated with Hudson’s Hope and the Peace River Regional District.

While recent large hydro projects around the world have ended up notoriously over budget, McDonald maintains that Site C will not. Approximately $4 billion in contracts have been handed out already, for work including accommodation, public roads, turbines and generators, and main civil works. These are “huge aspects” of the project, according to McDonald, and represent the “transfer of risk” to the contractor. “The first six to 12 months are critical for any project when you’re mobilizing,” she says. “We can look at our estimates and see where we are, and that’s the best gauge on why we say that the project is very solidly on time and on budget.”