Bonneville Power Administration's Steve Wright
It's been a month of goodbyes for Steve Wright, who retired Friday as administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration after 32 years with the federal agency.
Bankers boxes stacked in his corner office made a melancholy picture this week, a career's worth of mementos partially packed as he headed to the lobby of BPA's headquarters to sit at a banquette and greet well-wishers.
Melancholy because BPA is the only professional home Steve Wright has known. He joined the agency's conservation office as an ambitious 23-year-old fresh from graduate school at the University of Oregon, spent years as a political operative for the agency in Washington D.C., and eventually rose to its top job.
"I found a place I had a passion for and stuck with it," Wright said.
Indeed, Wright has Bonneville blood running in his veins. A trim, reserved 55-year-old, he takes the agency personally, immersing himself in its minutiae, internalizing its trials and triumphs.
There have been plenty of both during his 12 years as administrator.
That tenure, the second longest for an administrator in BPA's 75-year history, is a feat in its own right. Serving as the key mediator in an ongoing, public tug-of-war between an extraordinary number of opposing interest groups burns out most administrators in four or five years. It's even more impressive given Wright's timing.
He took over on the cusp of the West Coast energy crisis. He held on through three presidents, a rotating cast of bosses at the U.S. Department of Energy, and a host of decisions on big picture, controversial issues -- some that had festered for years.
It's not hard to find a detractor on any given issue. And some offer criticisms: that he didn't delegate enough decision-making, that he stretched the administrator's discretion and lost related legal decisions, that he failied to lead the transition to green energy.
But there's a counterpoint on most of those, and given the constraints of the job, there's wide agreement that Wright got it mostly right. "It's amazing that he's still not a polarizing figure, and that may be his considerable diplomatic skills," said Ralph Cavanagh, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Energy Program. "He certainly didn't duck tough issues. He's had as challenging a tenure at BPA as any administrator ever faced."
At the end of the day, BPA's chief may be the most important non-elected official in the region. The bureaucrat presides over a pillar of the Northwest's economy, perhaps its biggest competitive advantage: cheap, carbon-free electricity that flows from 31 hydroelectric dams, and the high-voltage transmission network that ferries it to customers around the West. His decisions touch every power bill in the region. Yet in many ways, it's a thankless task. Outside energy and political circles, the job is largely anonymous. And unlike a corporate CEO's gravy train of pay and perks, what you get for running this 3,100 employee behemoth with $3 billion in annual revenues is a salary of $180,000 a year.
The job also comes with a statutory straight jacket. The federal hydro system was set up by President Franklin Roosevelt to provide publicly owned, mostly rural utilities with the economic lifeblood of electricity at a time when the nation's big electric trusts were uninterested in serving America's hinterlands. While those days are past, the defining mission of BPA is still providing electricity at cost-based rates to 140 public utilities. And those customers guard their preferred rates with single-minded purpose and a hair trigger on the legal gun.
Yet BPA's mandate stretches well past cheap kilowatts. The system is supposed to be managed for the benefit of the entire region. And it is an enormously flexible and valuable resource, as a clean energy generator, as a superhighway for other utilities power, and as a battery that stores water energy and accommodates other resources.
"We don't have many advantages in the Northwest," said Wright. "But we have this tremendous river on the side of a very big hill, and that provides a lot of advantages."
It also means the administrator answers to a kaleidoscope of public interests, from the Energy Secretary to public and private utility groups to industrial customers, tribal groups, farmers, environmentalists and fishermen.
BPA is heavily dependent on the bipartisan support of the Northwest's congressional delegation, and Wrights political skills are second to none, according to Randy Hardy, an energy consultant and former BPA administrator. Wright not only has a deep grasp of the issues, Hardy said, but the relationships, the sense of timing and the tactical skills that allowed him to solve problems and make deals on issues that other administrators couldn't. "I've never come across someone with the political skillset he had," Hardy said.
A deft hand
Within months of becoming interim administrator in late 2000, Wright faced a drought, the threat of blackouts and skyrocketing wholesale power prices due to deregulation in California and market manipulation by energy traders. He acted decisively, if not always popularly, to preserve the system's financial and operational stability and head off a catastrophic rate increase.
The agency negotitated a series of daily power exchanges with California. It declared power emergencies that protected power operations at the expense of fish. And it bought out contracts with some of its biggest industrial customers, such as aluminum smelters, to reduce demand, only to see some of those companies take the money and run.
Wright led BPA and its public utility customers through the long and fractious process of negotiating long-term contracts that divvied up the benefits of the system for 20 years. He was instrumental in bringing parties together, then selling the deal in Washington, D.C., said Scott Corwin, executive director of the Public Power Council.
He also shepherded a deal between public and private utilities to end a 30-year dispute over the so-called residential exchange, a mechanism that BPA uses to share the benefits of the hydro system with residential customers of private utilities such as Portland General Electric and PacifiCorp.
"I tried to solve that for six years and didn't even come close." Hardy said.
Environmentalists give Wright credit for rebuilding BPA's energy-efficiency programs, which had been effectively dismantled in the late 1990s. And in 2008, BPA signed the landmark Columbia Basin Fish Accords, agreeing to pay about $900 million for salmon recovery efforts over 10 years in exchange for signatory tribes dropping any further litigation on the issue. The salmon issues are far from settled, but there is a degree of consensus among the majority of tribes and states that many observers didn't think possible.
"Under Steve Wright's administration we were able to establish a foundation of partnership and collaboration," said Paul Lumley, executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.
While Wright inherited many issues, other conflicts were born on his watch and will pass to his successor, Bill Drummond.
Renewable energy advocates long complained that BPA was slow to embrace policies and operational steps to integrate wind power onto the grid. The issue proved the rare political landmine that Wright stepped on, earning the ire of Oregon's congressional delegation. BPA went on to issue a controversial policy that unilaterally cancelled wind farms' contracts -- without providing full compensation for lost revenues -- during periods of excess power production. Wind farmers successfully appealed, a major defeat for Bonneville and an issue that remains unresolved.
BPA has absorbed and agreed to balance the intermittent output of more than 4,500 megawatts of new wind generation since 2005, mostly built to satisfy state mandates on private utilities to use renewables. That's a huge slug of power, and it variability imposes real operational issues and costs. BPA has also taken steps under Wright to expand transmission that will accommodate more renewables and distributed generation.
Wright said the conflicts over wind are one of his regrets. He says he wishes the agency had gotten the conversation going earlier with developers, which may have avoided later conflicts. As he sees it, the decision to curtail wind was ultimately forced on him by weather conditions.
Rachel Shimshak, executive director of the Renewable Northwest Project, says BPA, like any utility, is risk-averse and faces pressure from customers to maintain the status quo. She says Wright took some of the right steps early on, forming a steering committee in 2006 to work on wind integration.
"He did a lot of good while he was there," she said. "It was frustrating that it wasn't seen as an opportunity to rethink the system. I always wished he'd seen its as an opportunity, not a problem."
And the future?
Wright says he's proud of what's been accomplished on his watch, and comfortable with the idea that it's time for someone else to run the show. He says the job was intellectually stimulating. Demanding. And he was in it a long time.
"There are amazing things that can be done in this job," he said. "For me, the exhilaration was always greater than the fear of failure, the opportunities were always greater than the threats."
Wright has been a finalist for at least two utility jobs outside the region in years past, though he says he consciously avoided pursuing any job in the Northwest. He is outlining a book about what he's learned about leadership in the public sector. He's contemplating executive coaching. And for now, he wants to extricate himself from the all-encompassing nature of the BPA job and spend more time with his wife and three kids, ages 20, 16 and 13.
For his retirement bash on Tuesday, Wright asked invitees to forego gifts and mementos. Instead, he'd like notes and letters describing events and relationships during his time at BPA. The purpose, he said, is to someday give his kids a better sense of what he was doing when they were young.
On Monday, he'll be at his son's middle school, talking to 180 students.
His subject: The federal hydroelectric system in the Northwest.
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