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Illustration of TransAlta chief executive officer Dawn Farrell. (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail/Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
Illustration of TransAlta chief executive officer Dawn Farrell. (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail/Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

The Lunch

Dawn Farrell: No bluster, no ego, just candour in a power-hungry world Add to ...

In regions where wind blows hard, such as Southern Alberta and Saskatchewan, TransAlta is producing power at a cost competitive with natural gas and coal, she says. Carbon storage will follow that same arc, she insists, as companies climb the learning curve and economies of scale click in.

“We should be looking hard at it because 50 per cent of the world’s electricity is supplied by coal and they are building a [coal]plant in China every week. There is going to be a lot of coal burned on this planet over the next 50 years, whether Canada does anything about it or not.”

There is no single technology that will meet the world’s power needs, she argues – not wind, not geothermal (another TransAlta technology), not natural gas, and coal has to be in the mix. The economics of gas-fired plants look good now, because the price is low and it is half as dirty as coal. But emissions may still exceed future standards, and carbon capture from gas plants is more costly than from coal.

So if coal is a tough sell, so are most of the things TransAlta does – which means the new CEO must be a patient communicator who can function in regulated and deregulated jurisdictions and across diverse public policy frameworks.

She sees her biggest challenges in the paradox of modern-day life – that people want low-cost reliable energy delivered to their doors, but with the least possible environmental impact. What’s more, the not-in-my-backyard mentality is rampant, she says, particularly in the heated debate over new transmissions systems for Alberta.

“We live in a big country, we figured out how to build a railway, we figured out how to build roads. We often have decisions where the public interest has to overcome private rights,” she observes.

Ms. Farrell approaches these issues as a child of entrepreneurs, the first in her family to pursue a corporate career. With a commerce degree and a masters of economics, she moved into power-load and rate-setting jobs with TransAlta, which often put her on the front line with customers.

She left in 2003 to join British Columbia Hydro and Power Authority (BC Hydro) to gain some operating experience, becoming executive vice-president for generation. But after 4½ years, she wanted to return to Calgary for family reasons, and went to Mr. Snyder for advice. He invited her back in the company.

It has not been a straight line to the CEO’s office. At one point in her career, she concluded she was a poor leader, who contributed ideas to her team but did not listen well to others. Burned out on the job, she sought a leave of absence. Instead, her boss suggested she take the summer off with her family – but keep running the department at a distance.

“The trick was you had to delegate,” she says, and that experience changed her style. “I said, ‘Okay, I have to really think about how I work with people.’” Today, she admits that “I am not the world’s best leader, but I have worked hard to become better.”

It helps to have an inquiring mind, and Ms. Farrell is as comfortable discussing magic realism in literature, as the economics of power rates. She and her husband are voracious readers, and she particularly admires author Rohinton Mistry and his epic work A Fine Balance for capturing the tension between tradition and modernity in Indian society.

She feels the same push-pull in companies like TransAlta that are built on long traditions, but must be alert to revolutionary ideas. This means constantly facing the question: “How do you dump what is not working and keep what is working?”

It is the kind of riddle that fascinates Ms. Farrell as she begins to guide TransAlta through the thicket of strategic options in the power business of the 21st century. Even after some opening-night jitters, it’s a role she could learn to love.

CURRICULUM VITAE

Beginnings

-Born: Feb. 2, 1960, in Calgary

-Bachelor of commerce; masters of economics, both from the University of Calgary

Career

-Twenty-seven years in the power industry, joining TransAlta after university.

-Left TransAlta in 2003 to work for BC Hydro for 4½ years.

-Rejoined TransAlta in 2008, became CEO in January, 2012.

Personal

-Married for 30 years to a hardwood-floor contractor in

Calgary.

-Describes her husband as “TransAlta's No. 1 shareholder advocate.”

-The couple have two daughters, aged 23 and 24, and three grandchildren.

Verbatim

“My daughters would attest I am not supermom. It takes a lot of juggling to make it all work.”

Passions

-Favourite pastime is reading widely – about religion, neuroscience, psychology and economics, as well as fiction.

-Favourite author now is the late Jose Saramago, Portuguese Nobel laureate; her pick among his works is Death With Interruptions.

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