O’Hara Brings Expertise, Passion to General Counsel Post

Drawn by PJM’s ‘intellectual leadership,’ he believes in empowering employees and continuous organizational improvement

Chris O’Hara, PJM’s general counsel.

Chris O’Hara has a passion for energy law.

“I love this area of the law, because it’s all new, all the time,” he says. “There’s no other area where you only have to go back 20 years to find out how it’s all been done.”

The ability to refine existing energy standards or advance new ones, O’Hara says, is “limitless.”

O’Hara is looking forward to channeling his enthusiasm, work ethic and expertise, honed by more than two decades in the industry, to his new position as PJM’s general counsel.

In his new role, which he started Nov. 18, he oversees all legal functions, from FERC filings to state regulatory proceedings, to litigation in state and federal courts. O’Hara, who is a strong believer in both regulatory and corporate compliance, will also assume responsibility for the compliance team, whose excellence, he notes, was demonstrated recently in two very successful audits by ReliabilityFirst.

Challenges Face Industry, PJM

O’Hara says PJM must focus on its core mission – reliably and efficiently operating the electrical system for 13 states and the District of Columbia, while also recognizing that the resource preferences of individual states and consumers are evolving. PJM has many great minds and excellent attorneys who will continue to make PJM an industry leader, he says.

O’Hara recognizes the challenges that face the industry and, in turn, PJM.

A confluence of factors – including low gas prices, a changing fuel mix, an increased interest in renewables and generation-specific subsidies – is calling into question the ability of a centralized market to accommodate and respond to changing forces, he says.

“What we need to do is focus on operational excellence,” he says. “We have to recognize we are a mature organization as opposed to a growing organization. And we need to engage in disciplined, continuous improvement.

“A lot of times when we think of improvement, we think, let’s go file a new set of market rules. What we don’t think about is: Are the systems that worked for us when we had 20 members working for us now that we have 1,000?”

Benefits of an Outside View

O’Hara credits Interim President and CEO Susan Riley with bringing an outside view to PJM that has been “extremely beneficial” regarding this issue.

Similarly, he believes that his more than 20 years of experience in the power industry – representing a wide range of market participants on a wide range of issues – affords him perspective.

O’Hara sees clearly that small changes in PJM’s rules and policies can have major impacts on individual businesses and sometimes whole industries.

“I bring an understanding of how organizations work in this critical industry,” he says. “That allows me to share my knowledge and advance improvements at PJM – and there is still room for improvements in our design and implementation of rules and policies.”

O’Hara has already shown a talent for problem solving, engaging members directly on a number of difficult issues – including the much debated subject of supplemental projects – and building consensus.

“Chris is engaged, straightforward and practical, and stakeholders value that,” says Riley. “He knows how to deal with people and the sometimes widely divergent interests they bring to the table.”

Drawn to PJM by ‘Intellectual Leadership’

O’Hara joined PJM in 2017 as vice president and deputy general counsel, drawn by “PJM’s reputation for intellectual leadership, including, especially, leadership in the markets arena and energy policy,” he says.

He has spent all but five years of his life in the PJM footprint – in Bergen County, NJ; the Pittsburgh suburbs; the North Shore of Chicago; and, now, Chester Springs, PA. He earned his Bachelor of Arts in economics with a minor in English from the University of Pennsylvania before going on to receive his Juris Doctor with honors from the University of Maryland School of Law.

O’Hara came to PJM after holding positions of increasing management responsibility with NRG Energy. He also served on the senior leadership teams of its various subsidiaries, including as general counsel for the company’s two largest business units – Gulf Coast Region and Reliant Energy. As interim general counsel at NRG, he led the Fortune 500 company legal department during a transformative period – its 2012 merger with GenOn Energy.

As deputy general counsel at PJM, O’Hara oversaw a 19-member legal team and helmed the corporate governance, regulatory, commercial, litigation, human resources and information technology functions. His new role, he says, will enable him to focus more on strategic issues and bring more interaction with the Executive Team.

Empowering a Staff of Strong Performers

“There is a very good group of lawyers here with a lot of strong performers,” O’Hara says, “and I hope that we’re a stronger team given the moves that I’ve made.”

O’Hara counts among his successes the creation of a dedicated team to handle member service agreements and the team’s relocation to the Conference and Training Center, where they can be closer to their clients.

He also prides himself on encouraging professional growth in his employees.

“You empower your people, and give them opportunities to grow and demonstrate their ability to perform,” he says.

He cites as an example the recent promotion of Jen Tribulski, formerly associate general counsel, to senior director of Member Services, where a growing member population with a myriad of interests makes that role increasingly vital to PJM.

“Empowering Jen and giving her an opportunity to show her leadership has already paid off for the corporation, in that she’s moving and stepping into a bigger and better leadership role,” he says.

O’Hara continues to sees strength in PJM’s leadership, which includes great minds that have brought PJM to where it is today – to new arrivals with fresh perspectives.

“We all need to focus on one thing,” he says. “Being the best RTO we can be.”