Winning the “Oscars of Bonneville Power Administration (BPA),” officially known as the Administrator’s Excellence Awards Program, is a big deal at the Portland, Oregon-based nonprofit federal agency. BPA is in the energy marketing business, and Terry Oliver ’73 has been leading and directing research and development there for decades. Receiving the Administrator’s Meritorious Service Award is an acknowledgment of a career built on Oliver’s mantra: “Saving the world one kilowatt hour at a time.”
After trying everything from grassroots organizing with the now-defunct Citizens for Solar Washington to land-use planning and even working in a Minute-Mart, Terry Oliver has worked for BPA since 1981. He also took “maybe the world’s longest period of leave without pay” from BPA (from 1992 to 2000), during which he served as the Managing Director of the International Institute for Energy Conservation in Bangkok, Thailand, and worked on sustainable energy issues in the Middle East, South Africa, and throughout Asia.
Oliver studied International Relations at Evergreen, a school he chose as a community college transfer student because of its coordinated studies, and he heard it was a place to “combine things into interesting puzzles.” Evergreen was where he “learned how to learn,” which Oliver calls “the key theme” of his career. Of his “leave-without-pay” experience, Oliver recounts that he “picked up some of what I learned from a U.S. context and something from Evergreen… [getting] to recombine things in an interesting way.” When he started at BPA, managing programs like the Hood River Conservation Project was only going to be a three-year job. But with groundbreaking success on a global scale, even when Oliver returned from leave, coming back to work at BPA “was like putting a familiar shoe right back on. It was a good fit.”
In 2005, completing the circle, Terry Oliver was named BPA’s first Chief Technology Innovation Officer, responsible for energizing, focusing, and managing BPA’s research portfolio. Since then, he has restarted the BPA’s R&D program and created a publicly articulated research agenda, shifting its philosophy to “Copy people like Apple or Boeing who do R&D, not because it’s a hobby, but because it’s vital to their business.” When asked if he’s figured out the formula for success, Oliver laughs, replying, “That’s what they finally wrote up the award for!”
With such honors as this award and being named a Fellow by the Portland International Center of the Management of Engineering and Technology, Terry Oliver is able to confidently say his work “has actually delivered value to BPA.” In the R&D world, that is “a really big deal.”