Canada: Powerful Women: Cynthia Chaplin

Last Updated: November 29 2016
Article by Zoë Thoms and Corrine E. Kennedy

This week, our Powerful Women series profiles Cynthia Chaplin, Director on the IESO board, independent consultant and Associate at Elenchus. Cynthia shares her unique perspective on the challenges facing Ontario's energy sector having worked as an energy economist, consultant and regulator in Canada and the United Kingdom. She also shares practical advice for women starting their careers in the sector, including what has become our new mantra – be tough and be kind.

How did you get involved in the energy sector?

I have an undergraduate degree in economics from the University of Toronto. I went on to do my Master's degree at U of T as well, and one of my areas of study was resource economics – it seemed like a bit of a no-brainer being in Canada and surrounded by resources. I figured it would help with getting a job – and it seemed like there would be lots of possibilities across the country.

After school I moved to Edmonton for personal reasons (ok, for my boyfriend at the time) and got my first real job. I was an economist for the government of Alberta, in the Department of Energy. This was in the early days of deregulation of the natural gas sector and there was a lot of provincial and national policy work going on around natural gas. It was a market in transition – with winners and losers – and therefore there was important policy work to be done.

I was drawn to policy development work because it involved a combination of economic analysis and public service. Right from the beginning I was interested in working for the public interest – although being right inside a government department you quickly see the sorts of compromises that are needed to move issues and policies forward.

When I moved back to Toronto, I joined the Ontario Energy Board on its technical staff. Now I was at the customer end of the natural gas industry – and taking part in the transition to a competitive retail market. This was also a time when the interplay between energy and the environment was coming to the fore. While at the OEB, I broadened my experience into the electricity sector. And I've remained in the gas and power business ever since. I had the opportunity to work for the gas regulator in the UK and then for BP before returning to Toronto where I joined the OEB again as a Board Member and later as Vice Chair and Chair/CEO (interim).

Working at the OEB was the perfect blend of economics and public service for me. Its role is so important – and I really believe fundamentally that structured, open public hearings can resolve key issues effectively and efficiently. I think quasi-adjudicative bodies are key democratic institutions – ensuring the people affected by a decision have a role in the decision making process.

What do you see as the key challenges facing Ontario's energy sector today and going forward?

We are seeing lots of important trends – and many of them are quite clear. I'm thinking of technological advancement, where the economics of becoming more self-sufficient (through distributed generation and storage) are getting better every day – and the opportunities for a more integrated grid are increasing. Also, there is increased momentum around policies to address climate change and reduce reliance on fossil fuels over time. And demographic trends are interesting too. We have an aging population, but younger generations have higher expectations around engagement – and technology can facilitate that engagement. And economic trends around increasing income disparity within a shift to more knowledge-based work.

But even though some of these trends are clear, there is uncertainty around how quickly these trends will each progress – and how they will interact and play out in the market and on the policy side. There is a real challenge to align economic policy, environmental policy, energy policy and social policy. That's a pretty tall order. And on top of that, those policies also have to get taxpayer and ratepayer acceptance, and they have to create a positive investment climate.

Before, it was easier to align economic and energy policy – it was the "power at cost" era which fostered the manufacturing sector and delivered lower rates through system expansion and a growing customer base. Electrifying the province brought significant economic and social benefits. The calculus is trickier now – and many of the policy drivers are pointing to higher costs. Will new technologies help us to meet these seemingly competing goals? Will we be able to drive down costs through greater efficiencies? How much disruption will there be in our energy sector? We are going to be responsible for figuring this all out.

After the policy makers set the framework, I think there is a significant role for the economic regulator to facilitate the implementation of policies in a fair and efficient way. The OEB can use its open, transparent, evidence-based processes to set the regulatory framework for a number of the issues which will need to be resolved. And as part of that, let's learn from others. So many other jurisdictions are wrestling with the same issues. And we also need to explore as many collaborative ways as possible for resolving issues. We are seeing interesting initiatives in the United States, where a variety of stakeholders – with different interests and drivers – are working together to develop proposals to put before the regulator.

What are the key challenges and opportunities that you see for women as leaders? Are there are any challenges or opportunities that you think are more critical or relevant in the context of the energy sector?

I think there is a lot of potential for women leaders in the energy sector. There is going to be a lot of change and a lot of uncertainty or ambiguity going forward. I think women leaders can really thrive in those conditions.

Demographic drivers will be a factor – there are going to be a lot of retirements as the baby boomers move on (hopefully!) to other pursuits and clear a path for tomorrow's leaders. There will also be challenge, though, from greater consolidation in the electricity sector. And more women are preparing themselves for leadership positions in the sector – through greater participation in the STEM areas, law and economics.

I do feel a bit conflicted in this area. I want to believe in a true meritocracy – but I recognize that I come from a privileged position. My socio-economic background, my access to education and my very good luck in terms of assignments and mentors have all had a significant impact on my career success. I think one of the key challenges is to facilitate advancement for all women, and not just the privileged professional elite. We are in a sector which has a very significant component of highly-trained, highly-skilled individuals. That's not going to change – in fact it will probably increasingly be the case. We need to make sure that women are well positioned – through training of all types – to take up the important innovative work that will be needed in the sector.

What advice would you give to a woman starting her career in the energy sector?

  1. Leverage a great boss Bosses are just like teachers – you need to be able to adapt to all kinds, but when you are lucky enough to get a real gem, you want to leverage that for all its worth. Learn as much as you can – observe what they do and why it works and ask them for feedback (don't wait for the dreaded performance assessment!). I knew my first boss was great – but I didn't realize how great until I had been in the workforce much longer and realized what an incredible range there is in terms of skill, compatibility, empathy and leadership.
  2. Find mentors Don't be shy – ASK! If you are genuine and respectful, I can't imagine anyone saying no. You need a mentor (who's not your boss) to bounce ideas off of, to learn from, and to share experiences with. You need a peer group and you also need relationships with more senior and more experienced people – men and women!
  3. Stay engaged beyond your job Read the journals – follow the online discussions – know the issues – develop some opinions – share them – listen to other opinions – refine your thinking – repeat.
  4. Work hard, but work smart Don't let perfectionism get in the way of completion! Look beyond Ontario for opportunities and greater learning. Exercise your right to choose and recognize that all choices involve trade-offs. Be clear to yourself about the choices you make – and then DON'T beat yourself up about them. Whether it's parents, or kids, or lifestyle, or education, there are so many important things in life, and a career is only one of those things.

Be tough and be kind.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Zoë Thoms
Corrine E. Kennedy
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