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A power player in Nova Scotia’s burgeoning clean energy market Add to ...

Chris Huskilson drives a battery-powered Chevy Volt from his lakefront home to Emera Inc.’s gleaming headquarters on the Halifax waterfront, a former power plant that was given a $53-million makeover, transforming it into one of the Maritimes’ most environmentally-advanced buildings.

His electric car and his company’s new headquarters are outward signs of the CEO’s decade-long strategy to transform Emera from a sleepy holding company for Nova Scotia Power into a industry-leading growth story.

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Mr. Huskilson has embraced the challenge of reducing carbon emissions in the electricity systems of his home province and the New England states, and has made key acquisitions in New England and the Caribbean of “broken” assets that need to be fixed. In doing so, he has driven growth at Emera, and has earned shareholders fat returns and some enviable compensation for him and his executive team.

He has also courted controversy by pursuing the ambitious – critics have argued, misguided – partnership with Newfoundland and Labrador’s Nalcor Energy to build a hydroelectric power station on the Lower Churchill River and transmit the electricity via underwater cable to Nova Scotia and New England. He defends Muskrat Falls project as one of the largest untapped sources of clean power in northeastern North America.

His advocacy of clean energy is based less on preachy environmentalism and more on hard-headed business sense – electric cars may create significant demand for his product; efficient buildings represent a responsible way to consume electricity; while investments in hydroelectricity and renewables are being mandated by governments.

“Our strategy right now is about producing cleaner energy for customers at the lowest possible cost,” he says over lunch. While acknowledging that customers often get frustrated by the price tag associated with cleaner power, he notes that Emera’s utilities are typically responding to provincial and state climate strategies.

“Almost all the places we do business – Nova Scotia, New England, the Caribbean – they are all very carbon intense electricity markets. So the opportunity to reduce the carbon intensity and reduce the emissions from electricity in those markets is what we focus our strategy on,” he said.

A low-key executive who likes to stay beneath the public’s radar, Mr. Huskilson is one of the top business leaders in Atlantic Canada. He heads the largest multinational company based in Nova Scotia, which is also one of the biggest private sector employers and the parent company of the province-wide electricity utility.

With his rimless glasses and close-cropped, greying hair, the 57-year-old engineer would be Hollywood’s picture of a utility company executive – no flash, conservatively dressed, affable but deliberate in conversation.

He is also a lightning rod for criticism in the province, often the target for angry consumers who complain they are being gouged by Nova Scotia Power to benefit Emera’s bottom line and Mr. Huskilson’s pay cheque. It’s a subject that clearly makes him uncomfortable; he deflects it by referring questions on executive compensation to the board.

With his multimillion-dollar annual compensation, he is the rare breed in a province where the most ambitious people often leave for opportunities in Toronto or Calgary or New York. His own ambitions always lay in Nova Scotia.

A true Bluenoser, he was raised in South Shore town of Shelburne, of Icelandic and Scottish stock that goes back five generations in the province. His father, Graham, who died in April, was a prominent local businessman who owned a garage and car dealerships in Shelburne.

The energy executive is clearly proud of his Nova Scotia heritage. We meet for lunch at the Henry House near the Emera headquarters. It’s an impressive stone structure that was built in 1834 and is now a national historic site. A plaque on the outside wall pays homage to one-time resident, William Alexander Henry, one of the Fathers of Confederation who served as mayor and later a justice on the Supreme Court of Canada.

The Emera CEO orders the seafood chowder, which he suggests is particularly good at Henry House and enthusiastically recommends to his central Canadian guest. And he talks of his love of home.

He lives on Grand Lake, 60 kilometres outside Halifax, where he and his family race Tanzer sailboats, preferring the warm inland water to the icy Atlantic.

He traces his heritage to an Icelandic forebearer who landed in Nova Scotia five generations ago, and stayed while the rest of the immigrants moved to Gimli, Man. And he expects his lineage to remain in Nova Scotia – three sons are engineers or are studying to become one, and Mr. Huskilson says all of them want to pursue careers in their home province.

While many of his engineering classmates headed west after graduating in the 1970s, he joined Nova Scotia Power and was a lifer there, becoming chief executive officer before moving to its parent company, Emera.

“The reason I joined the company originally is that I really wanted to stay in Maritime Canada and in Nova Scotia if possible, to be able to do something that would make a contribution,” he says. “So that drew me to this business. And at the end of the day, I’ve never had a dull day.”

After university, Mr. Huskilson went to work on a visionary energy project that proponents hoped would provide a massive source of clean electricity: Nova Scotia Power’s effort to tap the enormous potential of the Bay of Fundy.

As a young software engineer, he was part of the team that built a fully automated tidal pilot project, though the utility soon discovered it could not capture large amounts of electricity without causing major environmental damage. The tidal plant is still producing 20-megawatts but the vision has been scaled back and Nova Scotia Power is now developing smaller-scale generators that float in the tide.

The down-sizing of the utility’s tidal-power ambitions was humbling for a young engineer, and a lesson that remained with the energy executive as he prepared to invest $1.5-billion in the under-water transmission system that will bring power from Muskrat Falls in Labrador. The partners spent some $300-million on front-end engineering before even receiving regulatory approval.

Many in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia have questioned the expense of bringing Labrador power to Nova Scotia, but Mr. Huskilson is confident it makes economic sense. The province still depends on coal for 60 per cent of its power, and the federal government has mandated that provinces essentially shut down coal-fire stations by 2030, unless they can virtually eliminate carbon emissions.

The clean energy from the Lower Churchill “will be in the market for decades and decades; it’s a 100-year project,” he says.

The Maritime Link is a big bet for Emera, but it’s just one of several that Mr. Huskilson has made. Since he took the helm, the company has weaned itself off its reliance on Nova Scotia Power, which accounted for 90 per cent of revenues a decade ago and was down to 44 per cent last year.

Shareholders have reaped the fruits of his growth plan. Over the last five years, Emera has provided a 17.5-per-cent return, on a compounded annual basis. For that success, Mr. Huskilson has been well rewarded. His compensation was raised to $4.7-million in 2013, an increase of 54 per cent. His 2013 pay ranked 57th among CEOs of Canada’s top 100 public companies, but was tops in the Maritimes.

His pay raise prompted some inevitable criticism. Provincial energy minister Andrew Younger said ratepayers were “frustrated” at news of the pay package when their rates kept rising. The Emera board justified the increase by stating that the CEO’s compensation had not been on par with other utility executives, while the company’s performance was among the best.

While Nova Scotia Power’s regulated rates have soared in the last decade, Mr. Huskilson notes that the provincial government is forcing the utility to adopt more expensive renewable power to combat climate change even as the price of coal and fuel oil rose dramatically.

But the CEO takes some pride in steering one of Nova Scotia’s business success stories. In the past four years, Emera has added 500 head office jobs and makes an effort to recruit locally through scholarship programs and other training initiatives.

“We’ve very proud to be here and be from here,” he says.

Follow on Twitter: @smccarthy55

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