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Chris O’Shea: Centrica chief executive with a decarbonising plan – The Guardian

The energy boss is committed to nuclear and renewable power, would hand over a chunk of profits to help with the winter crisis – but isn’t afraid of the ‘f’ word (fracking)
Even for an executive in the eye of the gathering storm that is the energy crisis, Chris O’Shea seems remarkably busy. The chief executive of Centrica bustles on to our videocall from offices in Easington, County Durham, after battling traffic on his way from a hydrogen project in the Humber. Afterwards he’s off to the coast, to check progress on reopening the massive Rough undersea gas storage facility – a key part of ensuring the UK will be able to keep the lights on as Russia throttles gas supplies.
He has also found time to watch Liz Truss announce her energy bills bailout on the TV. Her plan involves reworking power supply contracts, a measure O’Shea, along with other industry leaders, has been pushing for. Tomorrow brings an early morning trip to Brigg power station in north Lincolnshire, where the company is building a 50-megawatt battery storage plant.
He’s not complaining, though. “Having to work two jobs to make ends meet, that’s a struggle,” says O’Shea, crunching on a bag of salt- and-vinegar crisps as he hurries his lunch. “It’s a massive privilege to be in the position I’m in.”
Age 48
Family Married with three children.
Education Accountancy degree, University of Glasgow; MBA, Duke University, North Carolina.
Pay £850k last year (waived a £1.1m bonus).
Last holiday Florida.
Best advice he’s been given “You’ve two eyes, two ears and one mouth: try to use them in proportion.”
Phrase he overuses “Do you have five minutes?”
How he relaxes Spending time with friends and family; running.
Centrica is the largest UK company supplying power into its home market, with 8 million domestic and retail customers. It owns British Gas, the former state monopoly, and is valued at more than £5bn. Its stock has risen more than 70% over the past year, thanks to surging gas prices, and half-year profits were a thumping £1.3bn. Its assets span gasfields in the North and Irish seas, solar projects and a stake in UK nuclear power.
O’Shea shrugs off public anger that has seen him vilified for high pay (potentially £4.26m this year), for still working some of the time from home and for cutting jobs – he even had faeces sent to his home near Reading: “It would be very self-indulgent to feel sorry for myself. I’m in a very fortunate position.”
Later, he adds: “My brother took his life when he was 25 – that is the toughest challenge I have overcome. A personal tragedy puts everything else into perspective.”
O’Shea joined the British Gas owner as finance chief in 2018, moving to the top job in April 2020. Since then, he’s navigated Covid, slashed 5,000 jobs at the former state monopoly, and taken on 800,000 customers from suppliers put out of business by surging gas prices. Now, he’s in talks with government over a voluntary profits cap and is eyeing a push into more nuclear power.
Centrica owns a 20% stake in Britain’s ageing nuclear facilities through a joint venture with France’s EDF. Having flirted with selling that stake, the British firm dropped that plan last year. Despite pulling out of the project to build the Hinkley Point C plant in Somerset with EDF a decade ago, Centrica has been linked with investing in its sister site in Suffolk, Sizewell C. O’Shea confirms this interest for the first time, saying he is seriously considering investing in the project.
In one of his final acts as prime minister, Boris Johnson said that Britain was “putting up to £700m” into the project, which could cost £30bn to build. The government and EDF are understood to be finalising a deal that would see each take a 50% stake in a new vehicle while external investors are sought, pushing out China’s CGN in the process.
“I’m very interested in understanding the terms of the agreement between EDF and the government,” says O’Shea. “If those terms are attractive, I would very much like to be involved in Sizewell C, but I need to see the terms and have a conversation, obviously, with my colleagues on the board. But it’s fully aligned with our strategy.”
He says “some of our fears have come to pass in terms of cost overruns and delays” at Hinkley Point C, but backs EDF. “I’ve been in large capital projects myself. Things go wrong. But at good companies, when they go wrong, you learn from them.”
O’Shea says he is “committed to delivering decarbonisation” by the government net zero target date of 2050 or earlier. He says: “The reality is, I believe in a decarbonised UK: that requires more wind power, more solar power, more nuclear power, and decarbonised gas.”
He is even tempted by a project to build a fleet of mini nuclear plants in the UK. “I am interested in understanding a bit more about the small modular reactors that Rolls-Royce is developing. So that’s something that we would potentially look at as well.”
A push into costly nuclear projects would be a bold new frontier for a self-confessed “disciplined” numbers man. Born in Kirkcaldy, Fife, O’Shea studied accountancy in Glasgow, where he had moved after his parents’ business hit hard times. He has rattled through a series of finance roles with corporate big beasts including Ernst & Young, Shell, BG Group and Smiths Group, and done stints in the US and Nigeria, where his uncle was once a priest.
The Scotsman’s diverse wardrobe ranges from pinstripes to sloganed hoodies. Today it’s a blue shirt and a black blazer with coral-coloured chinos. A few sprigs of white run through his dark beard. He’s not too downcast after Celtic FC, whose matches he still watches with schoolmates, lost to Real Madrid. Not content just to be a spectator, he’s preparing to run the Berlin marathon this month.
Despite Truss’s intervention, this winter remains uncertain for many. O’Shea urges customers to wait until they receive their bills before inundating call centres. He says Downing Street should be “applauded” for the support, adding: “This is a two-year temporary programme, and it gives us time to fix the underlying causes of the issue.”
His solution is to voluntarily give the government a slice of the outsize profits Centrica has made from its nuclear stake and its North Sea gas operations, to pay for lower bills. He is in negotiations with civil servants now about how to do that.
Isn’t this merely a strategy to avoid being slapped with a more punitive windfall tax? “A windfall tax by its nature is a one-off,” he says. “It doesn’t fix the structure of the market. We’re trying to solve the same issue in a way that’s sustainable.”
In one of her first acts as prime minister, Truss reopened the door to fracking. O’Shea welcomes the new policy, which will allow companies to drill – if they win approval from local residents. “It’s absolutely right: you should look at it because, again, it helps with energy security.”
But would he oppose fracking near his own home? “If I was publicly in support of fracking, I couldn’t find it in my conscience to object.”

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