New CEO Jessica McDonald talks BC Hydro’s ‘new era’ and Site C

Jessica McDonald | BCBusiness

The longtime civil servant and new CEO of BC Hydro on revitalizing an aging utility infrastructure, the promise of Site C and lessons learned from her battle with cancer

Jessica McDonald is no stranger to challenges. The new CEO of BC Hydro found out in 1990, at the age of 21, that she had ovarian cancer—almost unheard of for someone her age. She went through months of debilitating chemotherapy treatment in which her whole system got septic before finally coming through the other end to become cancer free. Emboldened by her new lease on life, the UBC political science grad pursued a career in public service, and quickly rose through the ranks of Gordon Campbell’s government, assuming the top role of deputy minister and head of the 30,000-plus B.C. public service in 2005. The political and bureaucratic skills honed in Victoria will be put to the test in her new role as chief executive at B.C.’s largest public utility, which now finds itself at one of the most pivotal points in its history.

What did your experience working for Gordon Campbell teach you?
The importance of considering all options. Sometimes we get ourselves trapped into thinking about the way we’ve always done things and what the opposite view to that has always been seen to be—and that those are our two choices. There are a range of other possibilities and having the freedom of thought to actually pursue those—and come to the conclusion of what is the best way, the right way, to get us to a new outcome—I’d have to say that that was my take-away from that time period.

One of your key responsibilities as his deputy minister was to review and evaluate how government was structured and delivered services. Any early thoughts on how BC Hydro needs to evolve as a public utility?
The main thought that I have is the reinvestment that’s needed in the heritage assets in the system that serves us in British Columbia to provide electricity. We’re really entering into a new era in terms of BC Hydro’s story. When you think about the late ’60s, ’70s and even early ’80s, it was about the vision that built this system. It has served us really well over the decades, but we’re at a point in time where that’s only going to provide us with reliable, affordable clean power if we enter into a period of reinvestment in that system.

What does that “new era” mean for taxpayers? Beyond the 28 per cent rate hike announced last fall, how much more catching up do we need to do with rates?
There’s been very careful thought that’s gone into the 10-year rates plan, and ensuring that the plan is calibrated against another very important pillar for BC Hydro and for the provincial government, which is the affordability of the system. There comes a point along the trend line where the investment changes in terms of its impact on pressure on customers, because of the amortization. It’s not that there is a continual pressure on rates.

Is the $8-billion Site C megaproject on the Peace River inevitable, given the growing need for power—LNG-driven and otherwise?
We talk about Site C as a generational opportunity. It’s projected that there will be a 40 per cent increase in demand over the next 20 years. We need to find the smartest way to bring that supply into the system, to add to the system in a way that keeps rates low over the long term for British Columbia. There’s a lot of pieces to that. We have unused capacity in the reservoirs up north that can be drawn down that make Site C an ideal complement to the system. We have a portfolio of Independent Power Producers in the system already, 20 per cent—again, Site C can enhance that by providing the ability to firm that power and contribute overall to the system.

You can’t flip a switch and have Site C one year from now or 20 years from now. You have to plan for it, and a lot of careful planning has been done.

One of the realities of being CEO of BC Hydro, as your predecessors have learned, is that there is a certain degree of political interference: on rate hikes and capital expenditures, with the long-planned Site C project being a prime example. How do you walk that political tightrope?
BC Hydro is a Crown Corporation for a reason. It has a relationship with its shareholders through the government—it’s owned by the people of British Columbia. I’m not sure that British Columbians either know that or recognize what that means, but as a publicly owned institution, I think it’s appropriate—just like any Crown Corporation—that public policy objectives come to it through the duly elected government. It’s part of our role to take those public policy objectives into account, make sure we’re fully informing options and implications for the business of providing electricity supply to the shareholder—but at the end of the day, incorporating the public policy direction comes through the elected administration. That’s the nature of a Crown Corporation.

One of the criticisms of your appointment was your lack of experience in the energy sector. How do you respond to that?
I have a lot of experience as the head of the B.C. public service, running the largest employer in the province. I’m very familiar with running large organizations and recognizing where the opportunities are for reaching new outcomes—and BC Hydro is a great fit for me, in that respect. As for budgeting and being able to deal with very difficult times, I have a lot of experience and am not easily deterred.

How did getting cancer at the age of 21 define you?
It was a very, very hard experience to go through. It almost, in an odd way, made me feel invincible. You can’t control it. All you can do is try to fight through it, and you have to believe—to the extent that you can—that somewhere in you, you have the ability to make it at the end of the day. It starts to make anything seem possible. It starts to make your life feel extremely valuable—but not in a way where, for me, I reacted in any cautious way. Life has to be extraordinary. These things that you hear people say—it’s almost like a Hallmark card: how important every day is, you never know what could be around the next corner. I never had to learn any of that. It just happened to me, when I was 21—and I’ve lived ever since.

Did living through cancer make you a tougher person?
On a personal level, it made me tougher with myself, and being able to take on or deal with negative circumstances or challenges that the world may throw at you. Not tougher in terms of an understanding of others.

I’m not easily taken off course as to what’s meaningful and what needs to happen. In fact, I feel a sense of purpose—that I lived through all that for a reason. There are tough things that have to happen for the good of everyone. It’s important that there is meaning in what you’re spending your days doing. Public service is a passion of mine because, for me, there’s nothing that has any more meaning than dedicating what you’re doing to providing programs and services and considering the well-being of the people of British Columbia.