Meet John Hairston, CEO of the Bonneville Power Administration
I came to Bonneville in the 1990s. To be honest, I was just out of college and had never heard of BPA. But a family friend—a longtime BPA employee—encouraged me to apply. I had an economics degree and played minor league baseball. I didn’t know anything about the energy industry, but it didn’t take long for me to realize this was a way to make a difference.
The work we do at BPA improves the quality of life for the people of the Northwest. As public servants, we are giving ourselves to something greater, and I take tremendous pride in that. It’s one of the reasons I’ve made this my career.
My appointment as administrator is a culmination of the support I’ve received from peers and leaders during my nearly 30 years at BPA. Those around me trusted me and gave me opportunities to lead. I am committed to continuing that spirit of trust and providing others the opportunity to grow.
The values of teamwork and collaboration were instilled in me growing up, and I know my success—Bonneville’s success—rests on the collaboration and partnerships we have both internally and outside our agency.
The federal power system serves many purposes for many people, and at BPA we are pulled in many directions. It’s a challenge for sure, but I believe that by treating each other with respect and seeking to truly understand one another, we will be able to overcome our differences and help the region achieve its clean energy goals.
My wife, Paige, and I have four daughters: Madison, Juliana, Alexandria and Elizabeth. I believe the work we’re doing at BPA will ensure a brighter tomorrow for them and future generations.
Consumers flip a switch and the lights come on. What role does BPA play in that process?
Beginning with Bonneville Dam in 1937, BPA has marketed power from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation dams. The federal government now operates 31 dams. BPA also markets power from the Columbia Generating Station nuclear project.
BPA owns and operates more than 15,000 miles of transmission on approximately 8,500 rights-of-way that delivers energy to roughly 140 public utility districts, municipal electric utilities and rural electric cooperatives in the Pacific Northwest. Many generation sources owned and operated by others are also connected to BPA’s transmission system.
Much of the Western U.S. and Canada is electrically connected. BPA is just one of the puzzle pieces. We must coordinate to make sure actions don’t adversely affect others.
This is a big responsibility. In its simplest form, our job is to make sure the amount of power being generated matches the amount of power being consumed every minute of the day.
What affect does climate change have on the role of hydropower in the region?
We are blessed with an amazing system: the Columbia and Snake rivers. I view our hydropower assets as the original source of large-scale renewable energy. It electrified large swaths of our region 80 years ago. Today, as people move to decarbonize electricity, I look at hydropower and newer renewable resources as partners in the fight against climate change.
Hydropower offers clean, renewable energy and storage benefits. It has proven to be the ideal complement to wind, solar and other renewables that need a reliable source of energy to balance their intermittent output. That’s because hydropower generation can be decreased or increased quickly to match the up and down power production of renewable resources.
We already see subtle indications climate change is taking hold in the region. We must work together to stave off the multiple potentially devastating challenges it presents.
Hydropower is important as the region works to ensure resource adequacy. With coal retirements and renewables replacing those resources, the relationship between hydropower and renewables will become increasingly important.
How does BPA continue to serve the public interest in light of rising fish and wildlife costs?
Consistent with its strategic plan, BPA is managing its Fish and Wildlife Program at or below the rate of inflation through 2028, inclusive of new obligations and commitments. Direct costs were $238.1 million in 2020—the third lowest in the previous 10 years—with total fish and wildlife costs of approximately $611.5 million.
BPA has joined with regional partners to find wins for fish and power. A prime example is an innovative approach that spills more water for downstream fish passage when power prices are low, and spills less to generate more when power prices are higher.
How do you balance calls for restorative justice and dam removal for Native American tribes versus the harm if hydropower resources are lost?
I believe in collaboration. The only way forward is to ensure we openly and honestly work together for an economic and energy future that benefits everyone in the region.
I recognize the profound connection of Northwest tribes to the Columbia Basin as well as to salmon, steelhead and other species. I am proud of the work we have done with the tribes and other partners to mitigate the impacts the system has on fish and wildlife.
BPA, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council and our many partners will continue to work together to improve hatcheries, habitat and other conditions for the species that call the Columbia River home.
Can the system failure in Texas happen here? How reliable is the Northwest electricity system?
Equipment freezing, market shortcomings and other factors contributed to the problems in Texas. While we could experience similar conditions and problems here, my confidence is bolstered by the Western Interconnection’s configuration and measures Bonneville has taken to protect our assets.
Two Canadian provinces and 14 Western states share one interconnection that allows us to share energy and work together. The Northwest Power Pool’s resource adequacy program—which looks at how the Northwest can come together to ensure we have enough power to keep the lights on in most events—also helps. This is important as coal plants retire and more intermittent generation is introduced to the grid.
Over the last decade, BPA has invested in vegetation clearance standards and equipment design. That enables us to continue to deliver power during large-scale storms. We are working diligently to respond to the threat from wildfires.
I am proud of the work we have done and believe a continued vigilant focus on these issues will help us continue to improve and keep the lights on in challenging conditions.
What are the top financial challenges faced by BPA and its customers?
If we can meet climate change challenges, cost-effectively execute our fish and wildlife mitigation responsibilities and effectively manage our capital program, we can continue to provide low-cost, low-carbon electricity to customers.
We need to stick to our five-year strategic plan issued in 2018. Its measures allowed Bonneville to keep rates flat in 2020 with the exception of a small surcharge to maintain Bonneville’s financial strength. We temporarily suspended collection of the surcharge in July 2020 because of the pandemic.
The strategic plan includes critical updates to our infrastructure. BPA’s grid modernization program optimizes both the power and transmission systems, reduces future costs and prepares for changes coming in energy markets.
A sizable increase in transmission rates is proposed. We are working with customers to find the right balance to generate sufficient revenue to recover our costs and stay financially healthy. I am committed to continuing to control costs and provide reliable, low-cost service to all our customers.
What insights do you bring, and what do you hope your cultural stamp on BPA will be?
We’re fortunate to have a skilled and dedicated workforce committed to the noble calling of public service. It’s important our employees have what they need to excel in their roles and support BPA’s mission. I’m passionate about building and sustaining a healthy, diverse, inclusive work environment. We’ve seen a boost in organizational pride, job satisfaction, retention and recruitment. That enhances our ability to provide excellent service to our customers.
Cultural humility and empathy can bring people and teams closer together, and unlock real solutions and untapped potential. It’s important our employees listen and learn from each other so we can better understand our commonalities, differences and backgrounds, including those of the people and communities we serve.
As BPA administrator, what occupies your thoughts and maybe keeps you up at night?
I’m concerned about the impacts of climate change on the environment, our health and our ability to meet our communities’ energy needs.
As we approach another wildfire season, nothing is more important to me than the safety of the people we serve and of our employees.
Because it is always a potential target, BPA operates a 24/7 cybersecurity center that identifies and mitigates vulnerabilities.
We must continue our ongoing collaboration with customers about new long-term contracts, ensure a fully subscribed system and work to maintain our strong ties to public power.
BPA has reliably provided affordable, carbon-free energy to our preference customers for more than 80 years. I understand the decisions we make today have implications for our children and grandchildren. I take that responsibility seriously.
I’m fully committed to enhancing the value and capabilities of the federal power system so it can meet evolving energy needs, help solve our climate crisis and continue to serve public power communities for generations to come.