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Q&A: Fourteen questions for BC Hydro CEO Jessica McDonald

In just five short months, BC Hydro and its contractors have assembled crews to build the Site C dam, constructed worker camps, logged both banks of the Peace River, and thrown bridges over the Peace and Moberly Rivers in anticipation of civil work t
BC Hydro President and CEO Jessica McDonald made the trip up to Fort St. John last week to see how the Site C dam was progressing.

In just five short months, BC Hydro and its contractors have assembled crews to build the Site C dam, constructed worker camps, logged both banks of the Peace River, and thrown bridges over the Peace and Moberly Rivers in anticipation of civil work this spring.

By spring, BC Hydro anticipates having a viewpoint established for the public to watch construction, and online video feeds up and running for those who want to watch construction from their computer screen.

BC Hydro President and CEO Jessica McDonald was in Fort St. John last week to tour the dam site. Afterward, she dropped in the Alaska Highway News office for a short chat about the construction, the protesters camped at the historic Rocky Mountain Fort site, local hiring, and future development of Hydro's energy portfolio.

The following questions and answers are a mix of in-person and follow-up email interviews, and have been edited for clarity.




AHN: How has construction of the dam progressed?

McDonald: Progress is substantial. I was just down there this morning (Friday, Jan. 15) and the last time I was up here was a few months ago and it’s quite incredible to see the scope of work that’s progressed. It’s going very well, still very positive about being on-time and on-schedule and on-budget as well with the latest selection of our main civil works contractor and conclusion of that bid process.

One of the things we’re very interested in doing is making sure that the local community feels that there’s good visibility into the work that’s happening down there.

Obviously, for safety reasons, it’s not something that people can access close up on a day-to-day basis. But we are working out a viewpoint lookout site that we’ll encourage the public to come to and that we hope to have set up in the spring. We’re also very shortly going to have real-time video cameras where you can go online and actually see construction in the moment and see from all different vantage points what’s happening down there. We think it’s important that there’s good transparency for the local community in particular, who’d really like to know the works as they advance and how they match up with how the project would be constructed.


What are you hearing in terms of opinions of the project?

It’s interesting to know through province-wide polling the level of awareness people have of Site C.

There’s a very high level of support for it under appropriate conditions. Obviously, it can be a very divisive issue and that’s understandable. It’s important for us as a company that we’re managing it in a way that builds public trust around the project and making sure we do everything that we can to avoid and mitigate impacts. But it’s understandable that there are many different opinions about the project.


What are your thoughts on the protesters at the Rocky Mountain Fort?

It’s a difficult situation and as we’ve said, it’s important for people to know that we respect the right to protest, and understand that there are many opinions about the project. So we understand why there would be a site where people would set up to protest.

It does bring with it very difficult issues in terms of safety, being in proximity of our work and the ultimate impact to the schedule to continue in the area. It would be nice if it could be resolved, but our daily visits indicate that there’s not a willingness for that and given that it’s not going to resolve itself.


What steps has and is Hydro taking to end the protest?

On Tuesday of this week, we filed a civil claim in relation to a small number of individuals who have been preventing contractors from safely undertaking some clearing work on the south bank of the Site C dam site. It is unfortunate that we need to take legal steps, but we need to consider the interests of our customers if the project schedule and costs are affected.


Hydro had previously estimated a year-long delay of Site C would cost $335 million. Does Hydro have an estimate of how much the Rocky Mountain Fort encampment has cost in delays on the project to date?

 We are continuing to assess the costs of delay.


Can you speak to the court cases that have been brought against the dam?

Those that have been heard have all been dismissed and there’s one that’s being heard currently, so I don’t want to speak in any depth about it and respect the court process.

But the one that is currently being heard, we respect the process and will look forward to the ultimate ruling from the court, that’s the one that relates to consultation of the provincial permits. As we moved into that court hearing, we looked very, very carefully at our schedule to ensure that we had made as many shifts as were possible to take to avoid moving into areas of greatest concern in that case so we can truly provide space for that matter to be heard


Do you believe Site C and the issue of treaty rights are reconcilable? Or are they necessarily at odds as some believe?

We respect the treaty rights, as well as the issues and concerns of each of the First Nations impacted by Site C. We recognize that BC Hydro's existing infrastructure in the region has also had impacts. We know that, as a company, it’s important to build and foster trust with each community on an individual basis, to listen and learn more about each community's perspective, and we appreciate the discussions that we have had, and continue to have.

In addition to our efforts to avoid and mitigate impacts, we are striving to ensure that there is meaningful economic benefit to communities from the project, aligned with each community's interests.


There have been concerns about the number of local hires on the dam site. How is that progressing?

It’s been very successful in the early stages ensuring that there are local people working on the project.

I think just before Christmas our count was 75 to 80 per cent and, of course, with the selection of Peace River Hydro Partners for the main civil works contract, we’re very enthusiastic to how committed they are ensuring that there are local

We’ve had job fairs and business-to-business events in the region and there’s more coming up. We want to make sure that we have accessibility and that people can understand what opportunities there are and be able to have face-to-face conversations about what the opportunities are.

We’re also happy about the level of First Nations on site. A number of the contracts are now held by First Nations companies and got a good number of First Nation individuals working on site, I think about 50 at this stage. So I am pleased with how the project is going on those fronts.


We hear a lot of talk about Alberta licence plates on site. Hydro has said the majority of workers are in fact from B.C. How do you know this?

We know that the majority of workers on site are from B.C. because we have specific reporting requirements with our contractors. 

The number of workers on-site to date has peaked at 600 and we have been very pleased to see the number of local job opportunities that have been created on site—now 450, or 75 per cent, from B.C.


Electricity demand in B.C. is flat at the moment with the idling of mines, mills and slowdown in other resource extraction sectors. Where will the demand for Site C come from?

There are always cyclical events as well as fluctuations in electricity demand as a result of economic factors. This is why we plan over a longer term, within ranges. Just like any other investment decision that weighs economic conditions, B.C. would not have the affordable, reliable, clean energy we benefit from today if we made our decisions on a short-term reactive basis. Site C is being built to meet the long-term residential, commercial and industrial electricity demand in BC, starting in 2024 and for decades after.


The provincial government has said Site C will likely be the province's last major dam project. If that is true, what role will Hydro play in helping Canada meet its COP21 commitments that came out of Paris?

BC Hydro has a major role to play in meeting Canada's COP21 commitments. Our customers are guaranteed that our electricity supply will be a minimum of 93 per cent from renewable, clean sources. Our system, with a backbone of large hydroelectric power, not only achieves this outcome, but is also highly reliable and gives our residential customers the third lowest rates in North America. Site C will help us continue this picture. 

We also have opportunities to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, for example, by helping our neighbouring province, Alberta, to bridge off coal to renewables and other cleaner energy sources.


Is BC Hydro engaged in discussions with Alberta on power sales?

BC Hydro currently provides power sales to Alberta through our existing bulk transmission network. This is managed by Powerex, our trading arm.

Looking ahead, it's possible that B.C. could play a role in helping Alberta bridge off coal-fired generation and this could increase through an expanded interprovincial electricity grid.


Many groups have pushed Hydro to explore geothermal energy resources in the province, particular in Northeast B.C. What progress has been made on this file, and what place is there for geothermal in Hydro's energy portfolio in the coming decades?

I'm hopeful that geothermal will find a place in our energy mix at some point in the future. If the exploration uncertainties, costs and risks can be overcome, it may one day be able to be counted on to provide both energy and capacity in the system. However, despite being eligible, and having been issued permits from government, no geothermal electricity projects have bid into any of our competitive clean power calls to date to meet our firm needs and timeframes.


Former BC Hydro CEO Marc Eliesen has said there is opportunity for Hydro to access some 1,100 megawatts of electricity for the province through the Columbia River Treaty with the United States. That treaty is up for re-negotiation. Is Hydro considering accessing more power through the treaty?

One of BC Hydro's guiding requirements is to ensure our province is electricity self-sufficient. This means that, although we may trade to manage flexibility and keep our rates low, we are not reliant on energy from other jurisdictions to meet our base domestic needs. This is why our long-term planning does not build in energy generated in the United States Pacific Northwest, known as the "Canadian Entitlement" under the Columbia River Treaty.

As you have noted, either part can now terminate the treaty as of 2014 and, if neither does, the terms of the treaty will ultimately be re-opened which means that the Canadian Entitlement may not be available as a source of energy 10 years into the future.

Very importantly, the British Columbia Utilities Commission has also previously stated that the Canadian Entitlement is not a suitable source of dependable capacity in the long term.