To close off the year, we sat down with Bryce Conrad, President and CEO of Hydro Ottawa, for a frank discussion about what 2020 has taught him about Ottawa’s resiliency, the duty he feels to continuously support customers, and what it takes to keep the lights on every day during the pandemic.
Q: How do you think Ottawa is handling the pandemic?
A: This pandemic has been incredibly humbling and I don’t know if we have a handle on what the mental health impacts are, or will be, in the community as it continues over the winter. I think Ottawa has adapted and shown incredible strength and resilience. We’ve had our ups and downs with our pandemic numbers, but we are doing well, and being responsible. I believe that’s because Ottawans really care about one another. We have a strong sense of community.
Our team started tracking the pandemic back in January. The good news is that we had a previous pandemic plan in place that we were able to adapt to reflect the day-to-day, on-the-ground, realities of this one. That being said, I think it’s been a tough time for everyone, a lot of anxiety, a lot of stress, and a lot of uncertainty.
But 2020 taught me the important lesson that, as a company - and an essential service provider to the community, we need to be flexible and responsive.
Q: What do you want customers and small business owners to know? Can you expand on what you’re doing to help?
A: It’s safe to say that nearly every industry has had their business, services and bottom-line impacted. Ottawa isn’t immune to struggle. If you look at local small businesses here in Ottawa; the hair salons, the restaurants, local bookstores and retail - they’ve been hit hard. They’ve had to make really hard decisions, and in some cases, pay their hydro bill on their credit card to make ends meet. It’s gut-wrenching.
The short answer to what we’ve done is that I’ve given direction to our team to bend over backwards to do whatever we can to help our customers and small businesses. We’re allowing customers to enroll in flexible payment plans for up to a year, in order to pay outstanding balances on their account. We’ve been at the table with various associations and the provincial government advocating since day one for leniency on disconnections and promoting lower rates for all. And I’ve been pleased to see the government adopt COVID rates and more recently, COVID relief programs for small businesses and residential customers. We’ve been pushing these programs and other options hard so people don’t have to use their credit card to pay their hydro bill. My main message to our customers is that if you’re struggling, please reach out so we can help you.
Q: Ongoing maintenance can require planned outages. How are you balancing necessary planned outages to get work done while customers are at home?
A: There’s no denying that a consistent flow of power for hospitals, businesses and homes is more important than ever. And that power needs to be safe and reliable. As essential workers, our crews have been working throughout the pandemic on critical projects to ensure grid stability. If there is maintenance happening in your neighbourhood and there’s a temporary outage, it’s because it’s absolutely necessary and critical.
From the customer side of the equation, a lot of people are working from home, so there is no right time to interrupt power because livelihoods depend on electricity to access wi-fi for work and online schooling. It makes keeping the system running a lot more complicated.
I want to reassure customers that we only plan outages for critical situations. We recognize the adverse effect it’s going to have. My message for customers is to just hang in there with us. In most cases its short-term pain for long-term gain. Generally speaking, performing proactive maintenance means that we can prevent longer unplanned outages in the future. Unplanned outages cost more to fix and take longer to repair because they are usually a result of either defective equipment or damage caused to our system. Prevention is the key to keep power flowing reliably.
Q: How do you think the pandemic will continue to affect our energy usage patterns in the future?
A: To be honest, I don’t expect we will see a return to “normal”. With energy demand decreasing for industrial and commercial customers and increasing for residential customers, we’ve seen an overall reduction in electricity demand by 10 to 30 per cent.
The electricity grid is built to handle peak periods and with more and more people working from home, we’re seeing a flattening of the peak. You think about downtown Ottawa on a hot day in July and office buildings with air conditioning running - they’re usually full of people and those buildings account for big loads. If the demand isn’t there in the future, then that load gets dispersed across the city into the suburbs of Barrhaven, Kanata and Orleans because that’s where people are working from. The good news is that the grid is built to accommodate that.
Q: What are your thoughts on the lockdowns and other measures that have triggered a historic decline in emissions and improved climate conditions?
A: If nothing else good comes out of this pandemic experience, other than an appreciation for our collective impact on the environment, I think we should take that as a win. Climate change is the biggest existential threat that we need to deal with. We’ve seen the impact of climate change in the last three years alone in Ottawa. We had a one-in-one-hundred year flood, a one-in-one-thousand year flood, and six tornadoes touch down. The evidence is there and it doesn’t lie. As the largest municipally-owned producer of green power in the province, we’re going to play a key role in supporting this agenda locally, provincially and federally. After the pandemic, our collective efforts should be focused on climate change.
Q: What does 2021 have in store?
A: We’re all going to come out of the pandemic stronger than ever and we’re going to see a cultural shift in how we live, work, collaborate and create. I think it’s going to happen at warp speed as well. We’ve had this incubation period, if you will, to adjust our entire lives around something world-changing - and you can’t stay the same or run on the status-quo after something like that. At Hydro Ottawa, we are very much adopting a futurist perspective around our community’s expectations and energy needs as we go into 2021 and beyond. I’m excited about this innovative future we’re going to create together, embracing flexibility and responsiveness like never before.
Bryce Conrad recently appeared on an episode of the ThinkEnergy podcast. To listen to his complete interview, click here.