Leigh Ann Shoji-Lee, P.Eng., President of Pacific Northern Gas and TriSummit EVP, Utility Operations.

Leigh Ann, thank you for taking the time with us today.  TriSummit Utilities is one of the newer entities in Canada’s energy delivery industry – can you tell us about how TriSummit Utilities came to be? 

TriSummit came to be from the spin-off of Pacific Northern Gas (PNG), in British Columbia, AltaGas Utilities (AUI) in Alberta and Heritage Gas in Nova Scotia.  Combined under TriSummit, we are relatively new, but I would add that AUI has been around since the 1950s, PNG since 1965, and Heritage Gas since 2002.

The TriSummit name honours our founding three natural gas distribution utilities.  Across our utilities we service approximately 130,000 customers.

TriSummit also has a strong focus on renewable energy and currently owns both wind and hydro generation.

Can you tell us a little about your career progression and how you ended up as the Executive Vice President of Utility Operations at TriSummit and President of Pacific Northern Gas?

After graduating in Mechanical Engineering, I worked for five years designing and manufacturing automotive parts in Chatham, Ontario. The role taught me a lot about accountability and flexibility. With just-in-time inventories, I could shut-down a vehicle production line due to quality issues!

My first role in the natural gas industry was at Union Gas. I worked there over a 20-year career of progressively increasing roles starting with Assistant to the Vice-President of Region Operations and ending with Vice-President Engineering, Construction and STO (Storage and Transmission Operations). This was followed by a few years at BC Hydro as Senior Vice President, Field Operations.  Currently, I’m the President at Pacific Northern Gas and TriSummit EVP, Utility Operations.

Tell us what changes you have seen in the energy industry since your first few years?

Our industry has evolved over the past 25 years.  In fact, I would say that over the last five years the changes have accelerated.  There are two areas that come to my mind.  First, technology has changed the way we do things.  Although we still have pipe in the ground, the way we manage our pipes now includes digitized maps; automated meter reading and remote-control systems. Second, there is a growing focus on GHG reduction and low carbon fuels.  This is a challenge and an opportunity for our industry.  It’s an opportunity because technologies exist to develop renewable natural gas, be it from upgrading biogas or from the production of blue or green hydrogen.  We know our systems can deliver these. The challenge is how quickly can these greener solutions be made affordable for customers.

COVID-19 has prompted an unprecedented response from industry and its workforce.  How has TriSummit worked to keep employees and customers informed during the pandemic?

At TriSummit, we quickly implemented an Incident Command System which is still active today and includes a regular cycle of reviewing the current situation and setting our plans and objectives based on the latest information available.  We communicate our plans to all our employees on a regular basis. It is critical that everyone knows where we are at and what our plans are in the near and long-term, even though the long-term continues to shift. Two-way communication with our employees has been very beneficial, as employees have many questions during this time.

“The TriSummit name honours our founding three natural gas distribution utilities. Across our utilities we service approximately 130,000 customers.”

Also, on the customer front, there were initiatives both from a regulatory perspective and initiated by ourselves.  Each of our utilities were prepared to assist customers during these difficult times.  Our respective websites were instrumental in providing updates to customers and keeping them informed and our call centers were well prepared to talk directly with customers and work with them to find solutions.

“Our respective websites were instrumental in providing updates to customers and keeping them informed and our call centers were well prepared to talk directly with customers and work with them to find solutions.”

One of the TriSummit companies, Pacific Northern Gas, serves what one could call the LNG corridor – through North Central BC.  Can you tell us how involved PNG is with the LNG industry or how the industry is drawing on the utility?

We did start to see a lot of increased activity on the LNG front once LNG Canada finally made a positive final investment decision in late 2018.  For Pacific Northern Gas this brought strong new load into our Kitimat franchise area as a result of the influx of workers for the LNG Canada camps, hotels, and restaurants.

LNG Canada provided positive momentum for the industry as a whole and it also provided an opportunity for PNG with respect to our natural gas transmission pipeline.  We recently completed an open season for the reactivation of our natural gas transmission pipeline which ties the prolific Montney region to the West Coast at both Kitimat and Prince Rupert.  We saw a lot of interest as a result of parties looking to build out small-scale LNG.

Heritage Gas – the most eastern utility in the Tri-Summit family – is working on the hydrogen opportunity in Nova Scotia.  Tell us about that work and where you see it going in the next five to 10 years.

Nova Scotia and the Halifax Regional Municipality, home to most Heritage Gas customers, have both set ambitious targets to reduce GHG emissions to net-zero by 2050. In a province that still generates over half of its electricity from fossil fuels and heats many of its buildings with fuel oil, a cleaner gas grid that includes renewable natural gas (RNG) and clean hydrogen will play an important role in Nova Scotia’s clean energy transition. Heritage Gas has completed work that shows how hydrogen, especially ‘green’ hydrogen produced from surplus renewable electricity from wind or hydro energy, has significant potential to decarbonize Nova Scotia’s energy system. Hydrogen can be blended with natural gas to reduce the emissions intensity of the gas distributed to buildings and industries, help to decarbonize the heavy transportation sector, support the addition of more renewable electricity capacity, and hydrogen can be stored for long periods of time to help meet Nova Scotia’s winter peak energy demand.

Heritage Gas recently partnered with Zen Clean Energy Solutions, the Offshore Energy Research Association (OERA), the Nova Scotia Department of Energy & Mines, the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) and Liberty Utilities in New Brunswick to study how hydrogen production can support regional energy policy objectives around climate change, economic growth, and sustainable development of energy resources. Zen will review all aspects of hydrogen from production to end-use, evaluating economic and technical constraints and opportunities to scale-up hydrogen production in the Maritimes. The study, to be completed by Fall 2020, will help Heritage Gas build a roadmap for their hydrogen strategy over the next five to 10 years and beyond.

“Hydrogen can be blended with natural gas to reduce the emissions intensity of the gas distributed to buildings and industries…”

Finally – at AltaGas Utilities –what do you see as your biggest challenges and opportunities?

AltaGas Utilities provides safe, reliable natural gas service to over 80,000 customers across Alberta, with many located in sparsely populated, remote communities.  Covering this broad territory requires a significant amount of infrastructure to serve a much smaller customer base than many other utilities.  We operate and maintain over 21,000 kilometers of pipelines and more than 700 pressure regulating and metering stations with a field staff of less than 120 people. One of the biggest challenges for AUI is continuing to provide excellent service to our customers while the political landscape is changing across the energy sector.  We are adapting to society’s move towards a cleaner energy future while addressing the complexities of an aging asset base, and staying ahead of rapidly evolving technology.  Meeting the expectations of our customers, our regulator and our industry will continue to be a challenge with an asset base that is so geographically dispersed.

AltaGas Utilities has implemented new technologies to help overcome the geographical challenges it faces.  We were the first gas utility in Canada to implement aerial meter reading, and pioneers in the integration of our robust GIS system with our highly automated work management system.  AUI is well positioned and excited about the future of energy transportation in Alberta.  We have the opportunity to be part of new and emerging technologies such as RNG, hydrogen blending and carbon capture.  We will need to continue to be creative, innovative, and flexible as we work toward solutions that will meet the needs of our customers and key stakeholders in all corners of the province.

“We have the opportunity to be part of new and emerging technologies such as RNG, hydrogen blending and carbon capture. We will need to continue to be creative, innovative, and flexible as we work toward solutions that will meet the needs of our customers and key stakeholders…”

As you look to 2030, tell us what you see as the three biggest opportunities for TriSummit Utilities?

At TriSummit we have a significant platform to be able to continue to expand and grow.  I would say our biggest opportunities will be:

  1. Expansion and transition of our base business. Through expansion, we are looking at opportunities like the significant potential to expand PNG’s natural gas transmission pipeline or the great opportunities for all of our businesses to expand and capture more customers as they transition to cleaner fuels. And in talking about transition, this is exactly what I am referring to.  The ability to green our utilities with the introduction of renewable natural gas opportunities, or small-scale hydrogen – we see lots of potential here over the next decade.
  2. With TriSummit’s strong renewable energy platform, we expect to see many opportunities to grow this business between now and 2030. We would like to invest more in wind generation and potentially hydro and or solar if the opportunities come along.
  3. Finally, we would look at opportunities to expand beyond our current markets on both the utility and renewable side. I don’t think we will have a shortage of opportunities here.

Finally, what book are you reading or did you last read?

I just finished reading Mark Sakamoto’s Forgiveness: A Gift from my Grandparents which won the CBC’s annual Canada Reads competition in 2018.  The story is Mark Sakamoto’s memoir that focuses on two of his grandparents—Mitsue Sakamoto, his father’s mother, and Ralph MacLean, his mother’s father—who suffered during the Second World War. My paternal grandparents and their children, including my father, lived in a British Columbia Japanese Canadian internment camp during the early 1940s.  I wasn’t able to learn about this part of my family’s history through family stories, so I was interested in learning about it by reading the book. With the recent focus on racial tension that has been so prevalent in the news, I also appreciated hearing about the power of forgiveness.