Our Why We Give series spotlights Science World donors on why they support our non-profit organization.
Forty-three years ago, a brand-new laboratory opened in Surrey BC and invited residents to explore.
The research and testing facility, a subsidiary of BC Hydro now called Powertech Labs, boasted a team of scientists, technicians, and engineers promising to innovate electricity across the province.
Visitors toured the facility and learned about ground-breaking generation and use solutions that, eventually, utilities around the world would adopt.
Among the curious guests that evening was twelve-year-old Chris O’Riley and his parents.
They’d moved from Nova Scotia to BC in 1974, drawn in large part by the story of BC Hydro’s W.A.C. Bennett Dam, at the time the largest earth-fill structure ever built.
Having come from a province that relied on coal-burning for power, “the idea that you could turn water into electricity had always fascinated us,” Chris says.
Today, as BC Hydro’s President and CEO, he still has the information pamphlets he collected as a boy at that open house in 1979. They hold more meaning for him than simple nostalgia.
In fact, they contain the seeds of BC Hydro’s current Electrification Plan that, if realized, will advance the province’s switch from fossil fuels to clean electricity and attract new industries looking to reduce their carbon footprint.
“This past year has brought home to many the existential need to succeed in the fight against climate change,” Chris says.
“It’s critical that institutions like utilities act to change energy systems. It’s not something that will happen through individual action alone.”
That’s why he personally, along with BC Hydro, supports Science World. He emphasizes that the facts of science aren't moved by opinions and perspectives.
“Kids today are growing up facing this overwhelming problem,” Chris says. “It reinforces for me the importance of institutions like Science World, which aren’t political, and bring a balanced and independent voice to our society.”
Right as Rain
Coming second in his school’s science fair in Grade 6 helped solidify Chris’s dream of becoming an engineer.
For his second prize-winning project, he’d built a crystal radio, the simplest type of receiver that collects radio waves.
It lacked the power to run through a speaker, but if he wore a headset and stood outside on his front lawn, he could hear the broadcast of CKLG, the local AM radio station.
“The process was so exciting,” he says. “For me, science was building cool stuff that revealed the magic of the natural world.”
Around this time, there was growing public awareness of the environmental impacts of energy technologies.
In Grade 9, Chris gave a speech about acid rain—a result of emissions from coal-fired power plants—and its deleterious effects on the planet.
He lauds the quick recognition of the issue, and the united collaboration to address it, as an example of societal progress and proof that it’s possible to tackle big problems if we work together.
Powering the Future
Chris has championed the creative process of problem-solving since his early days as an engineering apprentice when he reported to Meryl Whitman—a legendary engineer at BC Hydro.
On site in Campbell River, they spent a week of very long days during a very chilly November trying to develop a system to detect a breakage in the penstocks that carry water from the reservoir into the generating station.
In the end, they were unsuccessful.
“But it was my first real taste in the working world of innovation in action. To this day, I still carry that enjoyment for problem solving and the process of seeing a problem through, even when the result looks different from how you envisioned.”
Chris brings this solution mindset to BC Hydro’s partnership with Science World.
With aligned goals of electrification and addressing climate change, BC Hydro will provide engineering and technology mentors for our young program participants; support and leverage our school programs with resources on green energy and conservation; and prioritize underrepresented groups in STEAM careers like newcomers and Indigenous youth.
“BC Hydro and Science World both explore the unknown and try new things,” Chris says. “We seek diverse perspectives and bring people together to collaboratively solve problems. And we’re both here to help protect the environment and create a sustainable future for people in BC.”
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Chris and Science World are working toward a nerdier future. You can help.