Top company profile: Hydro-Québec

The energy provider’s mandate: help Quebecers transition to the low-carbon economy

Sophie Brochu was a couple of months into a long-awaited career sabbatical when the Hydro-Québec board asked her to consider taking the top job at the public utility.

After 30 years in the energy sector, including most recently as president and CEO at Énergir (formerly Gaz Métro), Brochu had planned to split her time between studying in Paris and teaching in Montreal. But it was the start of the global pandemic and Brochu felt a civic duty to help her community in the best way she knew how.

“I don’t know much, but I know energy, and Hydro-Québec is a formidable organization,” she says. “For me, the call to go was very strong.”

It helped that Hydro-Québec was a sustainability leader and, Brochu believes, “a place where you can move the needle.”

She’s quick to point out that she wasn’t hired to “save” the organization. “Hydro-Québec doesn’t need a saviour, but this is where I can contribute. And I’m glad I did,” says Brochu, who started her position as president and CEO in April 2020.

She sees the utility playing a crucial role in advancing sustainability by providing renewable energy and working closely with communities, including Indigenous Peoples, and increasing gender and racial diversity across the workforce. “Every decision we make is constantly balanced through several filters, and we need to make sure those filters are the right ones from the ESG [environmental, social and governance] perspective,” she says.

The ongoing focus on sustainability earned Hydro-Québec top spot on the Corporate Knights 2021 Best 50 Corporate Citizens in Canada list, up from fifth place last year. Hydro-Québec also placed first in 2018, and came second in 2019.

For the latest award, the utility received top-quartile scores (75% or higher) in areas such as water productivity, cash taxes paid, executive and board gender diversity, clean investment and clean revenue (based on hydro, solar, wind and biomass generation and transmission revenue). Clean revenue may be a given since nearly 100% of its power is renewable, “but we need to keep it giving,” she says.

What’s critical, Brochu says, is how the organization invests its money, including in other renewables such as wind and solar, and in future means of decarbonization like green hydrogen. To take stock of its clean investment and revenue, Brochu created a vice-president position to map innovation across the supply and delivery chains and provide a benchmark for the organization to improve upon.

“When people tell you ‘you’re a leader,’ it forces you to keep doing the best you can.”
— Sophie Brochu, CEO, Hydro-Québec

The investment includes helping Quebecers with what Brochu describes as the “real-life energy transition” – for example, support with important customer questions such as: How do I plan and manage the recharge of a large electric fleet? What investment will be required above the cost of the vehicles? And, how will it affect my electricity bill?

The utility recently launched the Collective Energy initiative to consult Quebecers and get them involved in identifying and carrying out key projects that will benefit communities across the province. It asks Quebecers to reflect on three key areas: the green economy, sustainable mobility and responsible energy use.

“We are listening to what’s missing in the energy transition ecosystem to make real life happen and then investing in that,” Brochu says.

In terms of diversity, Brochu has added more women to the management team and about two-thirds of the board are women, but she’s also pushing to increase the number of women in roles across the organization. Today, about 30% of Hydro-Québec’s nearly 20,000 employees are women. “You need gender diversity and, ideally, parity to thrive,” she says.

More diversity also includes hiring more Indigenous people at Hydro-Québec, both in corporate roles and in communities where they are represented. A big part of Brochu’s mandate is also to improve the public utility’s relationship with Indigenous communities across the province. “Today Hydro-Québec is better than we were 10 years ago or five years ago, but my goal is that 2021 will mark the new era of the way we interact with our Indigenous communities,” she says.

“The whole idea is to be sophisticated enough to be nationally ambitious but regionally tactical, and very, very smart,” Brochu says of the company’s sustainability journey. “There’s so much to do ... but I believe we’ll get there.”

Hydro-Québec’s current goals are driven by its Sustainable Development Plan for 2020 through 2024, which includes three pillars: governance, community and the environment. The plan lays out 12 strategies linked to specific improvement targets and performance indicators. Hydro-Québec also has a target to be carbon-neutral across its operations by 2030.

To Brochu, it’s more than a target – it’s a mandate, as a renewable energy provider. “The challenge of an organization like ours is to say, ‘There are areas where we can’t fail, we have to be reliable.’”

So while most people see Hydro-Québec’s role as simply providing reliable power, Brochu believes the mandate is broader: to help Quebecers transition to the low-carbon economy and be a leading corporate citizen. Despite topping the 2021 list of the Best 50 Corporate Citizens in Canada, and regularly appearing in the top five in recent years, Brochu believes the utility needs to continuously improve.

“When people tell you ‘you’re a leader,’ it’s great. Then the work starts,” she says. “It forces you to keep doing the best you can, understanding that nothing can be taken for granted.”

Brenda Bouw is a freelance writer  and editor based in Vancouver.

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