As the new chief executive officer of B.C. Hydro, Jessica McDonald will be running a multibillion-dollar Crown corporation that is under pressure to refurbish and expand an aging provincial electricity system while keeping rates in check.
Ms. McDonald, who was a behind-the-scenes force in the government of former Liberal premier Gordon Campbell before she resigned in 2009, will also be taking the reins of the utility as it is pushing to build Site C, a $7.9-billion megaproject.
Site C would be the third major B.C. Hydro installation on the Peace River but is controversial for its cost – currently estimated at $7.9-billion – as well as environmental concerns relating to an 83-kilometre reservoir that would flood Peace Valley farmland.
In a report released earlier this month, a joint review panel found the project would have clear benefits, despite its high upfront costs, but also flagged significant cumulative effects on fish, wildlife and traditional land use.
The provincial and federal governments have six months to review the panel's findings. Both would have to approve the project before it could be built.
In a statement released by B.C. Hydro, Ms. McDonald said she was excited by the opportunity to run the utility.
"B.C. Hydro has an important role to play in growing British Columbia's economy and I look forward to leading a dedicated, skilled workforce and a strong capital investment program so that our customers can continue to benefit from an affordable, reliable and safe electricity system," she said.
B.C. Hydro confirmed Ms. McDonald's appointment Thursday following a report by The Globe and Mail.
NDP Leader John Horgan criticized the appointment, maintaining Ms. McDonald lacks relevant experience. "Jessica McDonald has no experience in the energy sector," he said in a statement. "Her only relevant experience is as a deputy to the premier who put B.C. Hydro in the mess it's in today."
The utility has struggled in recent years to keep a lid on rate increases needed to pay for upgrades and expansion to the provincial electricity system, much of which was built decades ago.
Last September, Liberal Premier Christy Clark ruled out a 26.4-per-cent rate increase for homeowners, small businesses and industry that had been proposed by a B.C. Hydro group working on rate issues. The hike would have taken effect between 2014 and 2016.
In November, the province announced a 10-year-plan for B.C. Hydro that included a 9-per-cent hike in the first year of the plan with smaller increases in the subsequent four years, resulting in a potential increase of about 28 per cent over five years. In the final five years of the plan, "actions by government and B.C. Hydro will ensure increases remain low and predictable," the government said.
The province has also launched a review of the B.C. Utilities Commission, a regulatory agency that formerly set electricity rates but that the government has bypassed in recent years in setting electricity increases.
As deputy minister from 2005 to 2009, Ms. McDonald was head of the B.C. Public Service and played a key role in the "New Relationship" between government and First Nations in B.C. That initiative, launched in 2005, called for a new government-to-government relationship between the province and First Nations.
Ms. McDonald replaces current BC Hydro CEO Charles Reid, who in February said he planned to retire but would stay on the job until the end of June.