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Illustration by Loris Lora.

Sophie Brochu used to listen to tapes of customers calling into the service line at Gaz Métro while she ran on the treadmill. After pressing “play” on her cassette player one day in 2000, the first thing she heard was a woman crying about the cost of her gas bill. The price of natural gas had skyrocketed that year in response to higher demand in the United States.

“I will always remember her saying, ‘How am I going to do this? Why is it so expensive?” Brochu recalls.

That incident made it clear to Brochu, vice-president of business development at the time, that the company had to do something to help out struggling customers.

In 2001, Gaz Métro became the first natural gas distributor in Canada and the first energy distributor in Québec to implement an energy-efficiency program that encouraged its customers to use less of a product it profited from.

Brochu eventually became the company’s chief executive officer in 2007. Since joining Gaz Métro 10 years earlier – and after 25 years working in the energy industry – her passion for serving people and finding solutions to Canada’s energy problems has not waned.

No wonder Brochu, 51, is asked often to enter politics – a request she dismisses as out of her character. “I spend quite a lot of time with MPs, ministers and deputies. I see all the compromises they have to make and everything that’s involved,” she told the Montreal Gazette last fall. “It’s not for me.”

Instead, Brochu believes she can achieve more as head of Quebec’s largest gas utility. And she’s doing this by speaking out on touchy subjects. She’s openly adamant, for example, that Canada needs a national energy policy, even though the last round of talks failed miserably more than 30 years ago.

She was also the first industry leader to speak publicly against TransCanada’s proposed Energy East project, which aims to transport over one million barrels of crude oil from Alberta and Saskatchewan to refineries in Eastern Canada.

It’s not that she doesn’t support western provinces in their bid to get Canada’s oil to foreign markets. What she’s critical of is TransCanada’s proposal to convert parts of its gas pipeline network to oil. Brochu argues the plan will lead to gas shortages and higher prices for Quebecers, which would threaten economic development.

It is unusual for the CEO of a natural gas utility to publicly challenge another energy company, let alone one of its key suppliers. But putting the customer first runs in the blood of the company, says Brochu.

Knowing the passion that she brings to her job, it is no surprise that Gaz Métro ranked in the top 10 of Corporate KnightsFuture 40 ranking for the second year in a row. We sat down with Brochu to talk about the company’s approach to sustainability, the future of energy in Canada, and the role women can play in transitioning to this future.

The following conversation was edited for length and clarity.


 

CK: How does Gaz Métro make decisions about sustainability?

BROCHU: We look at environmental goals as if society were immortal. We ask, “If we were immortal, would we still consume energy?” Yes we would. Would we consume it at the rate that we are? We don’t believe so. Would we invest in new technologies now instead of waiting until we lack petroleum? Of course.

I’ll give you another example. Ten years ago we said, “One day people will produce energy out of domestic waste.” We had seen the start of the science. So we started to look at what others were doing. There were not that many examples, but we stuck to our guns. And last Friday, the Quebec energy board authorized Gaz Métro to buy bio-methane produced in municipalities close to Montréal. The municipalities will take waste, put it in a digester, produce biogas, treat it and inject it into our network to heat homes. If we hadn’t started to think about that 10 years ago, we wouldn’t be here today.

CK: You must get a lot of pushback from other companies and the public. How do you deal with that? How do you “stick to your guns”?

BROCHU: Yeah, we stick to our guns. When new things are launched, they cost a little bit more. So, first we work within the size that we are. And then we choose what is most important to our customers. We start from the customers’ needs because if you do it from the top down, it gets very difficult.

For example, in Vermont we produce electricity with cow manure. And we give our customers the choice. Obviously if you take cow power, it’s a bit more expensive than the grid. But you know what? We don’t have enough. Many people are perfectly fine paying a higher price in order to be able to light their houses with the cow of their neighbour. But this wouldn’t work if we imposed it.

CK: When it comes to energy efficiency, it seems counter intuitive to encourage customers to use less gas.

BROCHU: To be completely transparent, we didn’t do it for environmental reasons. You know, 15 years ago, politicians were not talking about climate change. Nobody was talking about that. But for us it was very obvious that our goal in life was to have as many customers as we could, and once they’re hooked to have them consume as less energy as possible.
So it’s a weird business when you think about it. We’re putting solar panels on the walls of our customers so they can preheat the air before it enters the building and it helps them reduce their consumption of natural gas. And we still do it today even though gas prices are very low; we have not slacked at all in our efficiency programs. We actually have deployed efficiency programs to half of our customer base.

CK: You are a strong advocate for a national energy policy. Why?

BROCHU: I would say a national energy approach. There was a proposed national energy policy that was ill conceived in 1984. The idea was for oil to be cheaper, and Alberta went berserk – rightfully so. Since then, every time we have started to talk about a national energy policy, it’s like asking people that have been burned to dance around fireworks. They don’t want to do that.

The result was that we started to develop independently. Every province started to do things north-south; started selling their energy to the United States. We had very little talk and need for one another. But now, the United States doesn’t need us as much. All of a sudden we’re looking at one another and saying “Oh, you need to move your oil across the country to reach the coast?” We need to start talking amongst ourselves. But we cannot do in three months what we have not done in 30 years.

CK: Would you say it’s a good idea to work from the consumer up on a national energy policy as well?

BROCHU: You’re touching a fundamental point. When we have big discussions on energy in Canada, we rightfully think and talk about energy production, which is very important. But there are customers using energy and we don’t talk about them. Ninety per cent of the energy efficiency achieved in our country last year was by the customer. And at the end of the day, the customer pays the energy bill. And they care. So we need to start from the reality of the people in this country and work our way up, not the other way around.

CK: Let’s talk about the initiative you’re working on with other female leaders. Why did you start this project?

BROCHU: Yes, we just launched L’Effet A. We’re five businesswomen and we give ourselves five challenges that we need to complete in 100 days. The goal is to stimulate other women to pursue their ambition. We believe women have as much ambition as men, but for one reason or another, women see ambition as almost pretentious. Ambition can be a positive fuel or a negative fuel, which is true for men as well as for women. I have this deep conviction that as women start leading, we are allowing many men to be closer to who they are. We’re giving everybody permission to be who they are. But business has been so mainstream, so black and white.

CK: What role do you see women playing in the energy industry?

BROCHU: I started my speech about Energy East by saying “I am for this project,” and I finished my speech saying, “This project is very important to Canada.” But in between I say, “There is something that doesn’t work.”

I’m sad to see that there are some stakeholders, especially out west, who feel that I am viciously opposed to this project. They say, “You’re either for us or against us.” And I say, that’s bad, bad, bad, bad. If we cannot have a nuanced approach to these big projects, we’re going to have a problem. And I think that the discussion nationally is about nuance. And I think nuance is something that women tend to be more comfortable with.


 

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