Think Energy

From Mayor to Energy Advocate: The Evolution of Jim Durrell

Jun 19, 2023

What challenges and opportunities do Ottawa residents face as Canada moves towards net zero? In episode 114 of thinkenergy, host Dan Seguin chats with the former Mayor of Ottawa to find out. Jim Durrell is a distinguished personality, with an extensive career in sports, politics, and the energy sector. Listen as he shares his experience as Chair of Hydro Ottawa Holding Inc. since 2012, including recent changes to the electricity sector and his vision for the future of energy in Ottawa.

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Dan Seguin  00:06

This is thinkenergy, the podcast that helps you better understand the fast changing world of energy through conversations with game changers, industry leaders, and influencers. So join me, Dan Seguin, as I explore both traditional and unconventional facets of the energy industry. Those rollers me and welcome back. Our guest today is a distinguished personality, with an extensive and impressive career in sports, politics, and the energy sector. Jim Durrell, Former Mayor of Ottawa and Chair of the Board at Hydro Ottawa. Attended Acadia University at the age of 17, where he was the quarterback and CO captain of the Acadia Axman football team. He learned valuable lessons during this experience, which helped shape his future career. He has a passion for sports, and a commitment to bringing world class sporting events to Ottawa, including the 1988 Grey Cup game, and a triple A baseball franchise to the city. Jim served as the president of the Ottawa Senators, and has been inducted in the Ottawa Sports Hall of Fame as a builder. We will talk to Jim about how these achievements prepared him for his role as a mayor and the many board positions he has held, including his current role as Chair of Hydro Ottawa. Jim will share with us the biggest changes he has seen in the electricity sector since he joined the board in 2012. And his vision for Ottawa’s energy future. So, here is today's big question for Jim. What are the greatest challenges and opportunities that Ottawa residents face in moving towards Net Zero? Jim, welcome to the show. I understand you went to Acadia University in Nova Scotia at the tender age of 17. While there you were the quarterback and CO captain of the Acadia Axman football team. What are some of the valuable lessons that this experience taught you?

Jim Durrell  02:32

I'd have to say that, and it's a generalization about football. Unlike a lot of other sports and basketball, you can be an unbelievable player and carry your whole team and do something. In football. It's very much a team effort. If your offensive line is in playing well, you get massacred as a quarterback you can't pass your running backs are hit. So unlike other sports as well, you can't really talk to the referees, if you say so much as boo to them the wrong way, your entire team is penalized. So it was a wonderful lesson in teamwork, in understanding the value of teamwork. And at the same time recognizing that you couldn't -within the rules of the game - there's some leeway, but it's not just about you.

Dan Seguin  03:24

It's clear to say that you have a love for sports, and your commitment to bringing world class sporting events to Ottawa is unsurpassed. I mean, you served as president of the Ottawa Senators, you secure the 1988 Grey Cup game for Ottawa, you delivered a triple A baseball franchise to the city. On top of this, you have served as a governor for Canada Sports Hall of Fame and have been inducted as a builder in the Ottawa Sports Hall of Fame. So I have to ask you this. How did these achievements prepare you for your role as a mayor, and for many board positions that you have held through the years, including serving as chair for hydro Ottawa?

Jim Durrell  04:14

I include sport in the entertainment world. So when I look at the four cornerstones of a great city, and I believe Ottawa is a great city, one is education. One is health care. One is your economy. And the fourth one is and - in no particular order- is sports and entertainment. And it's like a chair, and when you've got the four legs of the chair all sitting there then you've got the makings of a great chair. Okay. And the bottom line is that young people today, the world is far bigger than sitting in your office, working all day and I've done that for my entire life but the world- is people need to be entertained. There's a life of inside the office, there is a life that you can enjoy with friends and with family. And sport does that, and you know, as a young man growing up in Montreal, John Beliveau was my hero, the Canadians. And young people have to have these heroes. One of the issues that I always found was when you came to Ottawa, certainly before we brought the NHL here is that all our heroes were from other cities. Well, now, it's not the case. So you can have a CFL hero, you can have an NHL hero. And these things are very important to me, for young men and women that they have models to look up to and grow.

Dan Seguin  05:41

Okay, cool. Now, what were some of the key learnings as a mayor that you were able to transfer to your role at Hydro Ottawa? And what were some of the key differences?

Jim Durrell  05:56

You know, when you're mayor of the capital city of Canada, it's a job that no matter how many years you spend, training, it's a whole different world. And you recognize, I guess, I'll go back and just say, in our personal lives, we choose our friends, we choose what we want to do and when we want to do it. When you're mayor, you see the underbelly of a city, you see the great, you see the challenges, you see the toughness, and it all gets thrown on you on a daily basis. And, and I don't mean that negatively, I mean it from a learning perspective, because you walk out of that job, with a far bigger view and vision of, of how the world really, really works. And so when I came to Hydro, it was it's interesting, because we're very much a private company, but we're even more a public company, and the expectations of the public at large, and our shareholder, which is City Council. Now, I'm very fortunate, having spent all the years that I did at the city, I understand how Council works, and I understand what's important to the individual Councillors and, and the Mayor. And so that has been an asset for me to be able to move through those minefields and call them whatever you want. But the bigger picture is, I never forgot how important our customers were. And our customers were the citizens of Ottawa. And that's our regional debt. That's why we're here.

Dan Seguin  07:48

Jim, you have served on the Hydro Ottawa board since July 2012. What is the biggest change you've seen in Hydro Ottawa since?

Jim Durrell  08:01

That's a good question. And when I became chairman, Hydro, Ottawa was a very highly, highly regulated business. And by a regulated business, we just mailed out the bills, people paid the bills, and we provided energy to their homes. As time has gone on, and we see this all everywhere - fridges, stoves, air conditioners, everything is much, much more efficient. So when you look at the consumption level, per house, and per business, it's dropped substantially. Now, people would argue, and why are my hydro rates going up? Because it's a regulated business, and we're basically controlled by the province. It's really the reality of life. To succeed and grow, then we had to move into other fields. So in 2012 95% of our net income basically, came from the regulated business. Today, it's 67%. And that change, that movement away, has been largely through green energy. And then there are things that we can control in our future. We're the boss, and it allows us, and I look at Chaudiere, you know, the Falls and the energy. We're the largest municipally owned run-of-the-water in Ontario right now. That's the biggest change that we've really gravitated from a regulated business to an exciting, expanding, growing and financially successful business.

Dan Seguin  09:42

Okay, now, I know you love a challenge. So what project or moment during your tener as Board Chair for Hydro Ottawa, do you consider to have been the most challenging?

Jim Durrell  09:54

The biggest thing I would say is, it gets a little complicated, so I'll try and keep it at a high level. We pay every year a dividend to the city, they're our shareholder, they expect the dividend. We always borrowed money- I won't get into financial structures because it's a strange animal created by the province. But we were borrowing money to pay the city a dividend, which just drove us further and further in debt all the time. And our free cash flow, which is what you should pay dividends out was diminished, or non existent by changing to an unregulated business, which is what we're doing now. The unregulated business doesn't pay the dividend, we made that fundamental governance change. So we pay a dividend out of Hydro Ottawa Limited, but all our other Portege power in very all of our other businesses, we keep that cash and those profits. So basically, long term means that we won't be borrowing to pay dividends to the city, that it was the largest fundamental change that we made.

Dan Seguin  11:03

If you could take out your crystal ball and forecast the future. What do you see in Ottawa's energy future?

Jim Durrell  11:11

For all of the talk that goes on about climate change and efficiencies, very little, frankly, is ever done. I mean, solar has just barely scratched the surface here. Wind is, you know, even less so and only in certain areas. So we've got an enormous number of buildings, federal, and municipal, that are older buildings, very poorly constructed for today's modern energy desires. And there has to be a big infrastructure. You can talk all day long about cars and efficiencies there. The hidden energy that's used by all of these older infrastructures is staggering. And nobody talks about it. Like quite frankly, so they spend their time worrying about an electric vehicle. And those are largely highly visible. And it's not that they're not important. The fact of the matter is, there's an enormous other number of areas that have to be changed. And those changes cost money. I look at the amount of money they created first, Atlantis and for this plant  and in St. Thomas, as well. And, you know, for Volkswagen. And those are all lovely things and but when I look at money that could really be reinvested properly, and, and have a profound impact in our city. It's fixing that infrastructure. It really is.

Dan Seguin  12:45

What, in your opinion, are some of the greatest challenges that we are facing as a community moving toward a net zero economy?

Jim Durrell  12:56

It's understanding what is net zero. It's now thrown around so casually, and, and everybody jumps right away and focuses on electric vehicles. Well, that's how we're going to do it. And they focus on, we're going to do more wind and solar. The counterbalance is a huge movement out there to cancel natural gas, which is, quite frankly, still highly energy efficient. And you have to, as you gravitate to net zero, it has to be financially affordable for people, it's fine for elites, and it's fine for people who've got lots of money to say we're all going to do this. There's a staggering number of people who live in this city that live hand to mouth, and they need energy, just like the elites need energy. And I use that word and I sounds in such a disparaging way, but they make most of the decisions. So as you move to net zero, you have to do it in an affordable, practical way. City Council passed a motion to cancel natural gas. Do you know what that would mean? Imagine trying to go to your house now. You have no natural gas and you're going to have electricity. Instead of paying a couple of 100 bucks a month, you're going to be paying 1000s What people can't afford that this is just you know, it's lovely, but it's quite frankly, nonsense. At some point in time. It's a nice thing to do. My granddaughter is your very typical 16 year old idealist. She is smart, engaged, a just adore and she's all on climate all the time, Grandpa, you're good in this net. And as I always said to her, Your grandpa totally agrees with you, dear. It's just that you have to move there in a responsible fashion and if you don't, you're going to hurt a tremendous number of people in the process. So the bottom line for me is most of these net zero goals are overly ambitious, there's no real plan to do them, you know whether it's federally provincially, everybody just is talking about it. And the goals are admirable, but it's got to be a goal that is achievable. I have for how many years now I watch the federal government say, you know, we're going to cut our carbon emissions, and every year they go up, what the hell's the use of all this planning, or whatever they call it? And nobody says anything about it.

Dan Seguin  15:29

You're gonna kill me, but I've got a follow up question here. Now, I'll flip that question. What, in your opinion, Jim, are the greatest opportunities that we have as a community in moving toward achieving net zero?

Jim Durrell  15:42

People understanding what Net Zero is. Really understanding and what they have to do themselves to try and get there. It's only a collective buying in, in my estimation, by the public at large. That's really ever going to move this. I'll go back to electric vehicles. There aren't enough charging stations around anywhere to handle it.  Snd everybody is "Oh, yeah. And in five years, it'll be only electric vehicles." No, there won't. In 10 years, we'll know there won't. I'm not even sure in 15 years. Because the infrastructure isn't there to support it. So though, there's something that I think can really happen, and happen properly. We're trying to gravitate to all of our vehicles being electric, here at Hydro Ottawa, and we can't get the vehicles. Oh, that's such a lovely goal. But they're not building them. And so this is the reality and if people have to really understand, and it's not the Prime Minister going out with some dribble or gravel and saying these are all the things of the Minister of the Environment, I don't mean to be disrespectful. But the bottom line is, it's all window dressing, there's nothing really honestly substantive there that affects you and me on a daily basis. We pay more than a carbon tax, and I got a check the other day, I mean, what I got the check for, and I'd find it with some reimbursement. Well, that's all window dressing. There's more cars on the road today than there ever was. And all it does is hurt the little guy who can't afford this stuff, you know. So the opportunities are enormous. They're far reaching. But they can only be achieved when people understand it. In its simplest equation, it's I want to lose 30 pounds by next year. Okay, well, that's a wonderful thing. Well, how are you going to do it? Well, these are the things I'm going to do. Okay, so in next month, what will you have lost? Well, if I do all this, I should have lost four pounds and you move it through and there's your 30. I don't see any of that happening, frankly. So there's a real opportunities there. It's moving again, from window dressing to substantive action that's meaningful.

Dan Seguin  18:11

You've had a very storied and accomplished life, Jim. So which is singular achievement in this wonderful life so far, are you most proud of?

Jim Durrell  18:23

Well, without leaving your family out, because I think that's unnatural, I would have to say Receiving the Order of Canada, which is the highest honor a civilian or a citizen can get to be recognized by your country. And I still I have my snowflake on my jacket as we speak here today. That was something going to Rideau Hall and having the Governor General talk about your accomplishments. And it was something that has left a lasting impression. It keeps you enormously humble, and I hope it'll have a great impact on my grandchildren and how they know they can make this country a better place.

Dan Seguin  19:15

What is the one singular thing in your opinion that Ottawa residents most need to know about the work we do at Hydro Ottawa, that they may not already know?

Jim Durrell  19:30

Our reliability, and every every single month, we look at two things. The acronyms are sadie and safety, but it's the number of outages and the frequency of time. We are best in class and have been for a number of years compared to other comparable energy utilities. And we take hydro for granted. If you do just wake up and flick a light and you just go, and you start to open your fridge. And all of these things are just, we don't even give a second thought to them, except when they don't work all of a sudden. And then it's like, well, what the hell is going on here? Why is this off? And hydro is probably-  not because I'm Chairman - that it won't be for long. It's the best value for money in all of the bills that we pay. It really is. I mean, when I think of the life style that it provides citizens on a day to day basis for what you pay. It's a great deal.

Dan Seguin  20:43

And finally, Sir, after your retirement as Board Chair in June, where are we next likely to see Jim Durrell? On the golf course at Augusta or celebrating with a Stanley Cup over your shoulders?

Jim Durrell  21:00

Boy, I'll tell you, I thought we were gonna win the cup. Had we had goaltending, we would have won it back in '08. But you know, I've always been active. It's keeps me young mentally. And so I have been very blessed. I have a great group of friends who are equally active. So we play tennis, we play golf. And I'll always care about the community, I mentor a number of young people, I'll continue to do that. I find that very personally fulfilling to pay it forward with young people. So it'll be a lot of that. You know, frankly, with the committees, and all of the boards I've chaired. I'm coming up to 77, the torch has been passed. My wife always says you're gonna go crazy. Oh, no, I won't cook because I've in my life built a tremendous group of friends and associates, most of whom have been very accomplished. And we have discussion groups, and we talk about things. So mentally, I stay challenged. Physically, I stay challenged. And I'm blessed to have a great family and I just love life.

Dan Seguin  22:20

Lastly, we always end our interviews with some rapid fire questions. Are you ready?

Jim Durrell  22:27


Dan Seguin  22:28

Okay, sir. What are you reading right now?

Jim Durrell  22:31

I just finished the book. It was the prequel to Pillars of the Earth. So it was very good. I'm also a big John Grissom fan, I have to say. Largely because he does really fascinating stories, but there's always history lessons. He's like Leon Uris used to be, you know, when he was writing that you have a lots of factual history. And around it, they put in the adventure in the story.

Dan Seguin  23:00

The next one is always interesting. What would you name your boat? If you had one? Or maybe you do have one?

Jim Durrell  23:08

I have one and I call it "The First Lady."

Dan Seguin  23:10

Who is someone that you truly admire?

Jim Durrell  23:14

I admire so many people. I'm trying to move away out of out of family and oh, it's a rapid fire question. So I know so many accomplished people and I admire. I don't know if there's any one person in particular that I would pick out of, you know, other than within family, honestly.

Dan Seguin  23:32

Okay, what is the closest thing to real magic that you've witnessed?

Jim Durrell  23:38

The birth of a child.

Dan Seguin  23:40

What has been the biggest challenge to you personally, since the pandemic began?

Jim Durrell  23:46

It was staying socially active. I'm a very social animal. And so I refused to have the pandemic control my life. I got all my shots when I should get them. I follow the rules, but I stayed fairly socially active.

Dan Seguin  24:06

Now. We've all been guilty of watching a lot more Netflix and TV lately. What's your favorite movie or show right now?

Jim Durrell  24:16

Yeah, I really enjoyed the Bridgerton I enjoyed Succession. I'm into Yellowstone now. But frankly, I I hardly, it's not a sporting event that I'm interested. I watch very little TV. I just find TV today is not very good. And I'm busy. I'll watch a movie every now and again but doesn't control my life.

Dan Seguin  24:42

Lastly, Jim, what's exciting you about the energy sector right now?

Jim Durrell  24:48

Not a lot. I hate to say this, because I'm a glass half full guy. When I look at the competency of our Senior Management. I'm going to take that question internally. When I see the men and women that are running Hydro Ottawa today, that makes me excited. It gives me confidence. And it's not BS. Our executive team is a highly competent, a group of men and women who really give a damn. And I think do an extremely good job.

Dan Seguin  25:27

Well, this is it. We've reached the end of another episode of the thinkenergy podcast. Thank you so much for joining us today. I hope you had a lot of fun.

Jim Durrell  25:39

A pleasure, I enjoyed it.

Dan Seguin  25:41

Cheers. Thanks for tuning in for another episode of The think energy podcast. Don't forget to subscribe and leave us a review where ever you're listening. And to find out more about today's guests are previous episodes, visit I hope you'll join us again next time as we spark even more conversations about the energy of tomorrow.