CEO of Colorado Springs Utilities focused on safety, community outreach

In a recent interview with the American Public Power Association, Aram Benyamin, the new CEO of Colorado Springs Utilities outlined his priorities for the public power utility from both an internal and an external perspective. Internally, the utility has placed a high priority on safety, while externally, Benyamin highlighted a focus on community outreach.

(This story is the first of a two-part article based on an interview with Benyamin that took place in October. The second article will focus on Benyamin’s thoughts on renewable energy and battery storage and what the utility is doing on the electric vehicle front).

In the interview, which took place on Oct. 24, Benyamin was asked to detail his short- and long-terms goals for Colorado Springs Utilities as its new CEO.

“We’ve declared some immediate internal focus on the organization itself,” he noted.

The utility has placed a high priority on safety “to make sure the entire organization is moving in the same direction of zero injuries and zero lost days.”

Quality is another area of internal focus for Benyamin. He wants to make sure his employees have the right training and tools “so when we have capital projects in all four services [electric, natural gas, water and wastewater] they are planned, designed, procured, executed and delivered with the same high level of quality.”

He added, “We are aligning the organization and ensuring employees hear it from me firsthand on why these are important focus areas.”

Aram Benyamin, CEO of Colorado Springs Utilities (photo courtesy of Colorado Springs Utilities).

Economic development

In terms of economic development, the utility’s website provides a detailed list of benefits that Colorado Springs Utilities can offer businesses including competitive rates, outstanding electric reliability and quick power restoration (the utility’s average power interruption duration in 2017 was 40.97 minutes).

Adding to the compelling reasons why a business would want to establish operations in Colorado Springs, Benyamin listed his organization’s capable and educated workforce.

“We have a great partnership with the mayor, the city council and our community agencies. We have a very focused government structure that is making it attractive for people to do business here.”

Benyamin said that the downtown area is a “huge economic development pocket” that is taking shape. Adding that the utility plays a significant role in this development by ensuring the infrastructure is turnkey.

Integrated resource planning

Meanwhile, Benyamin said that “one of the long-term conversations we have initiated” relates to the utility’s integrated resource plans.

Colorado Springs Utilities has four integrated resource plans covering electric, natural gas, water and wastewater.

Benyamin has directed staff to start the process of linking the four documents together.

“I want to make sure the plans are locked together moving forward so that we can leverage the benefits of being a four-service utility to better serve our customers.”

A focus on community outreach

From an external perspective, Benyamin explained the importance of community outreach. He wants customers to understand their input matters and that they have a voice in the decisions that affect their utility and community.

Benyamin noted that “we have a lot of big ticket items and big discussions” on the horizon.

One example is the decommissioning of its downtown coal-fired power plant, call the Martin Drake Power Plant. This 185-megawatt plant provides about a quarter of the community’s power year-round.

The Colorado Springs Utilities Board voted in 2015 to decommission the plant no later than 2035. This process started by retiring the plant’s smallest and oldest generating unit at the end of 2016.

In 2017, an extensive study was completed for the board to evaluate earlier closure options, the location of replacement generation and scenarios for the site of the plant once it is deconstructed.

At the end of this process, the Utilities Board directed staff to accelerate essential transmission projects that will allow for various closure options while continuing to provide customers with safe and reliable power, Colorado Springs Utilities notes on its website.

The utility is now planning and putting the infrastructure in place to decommission and deconstruct the plant. This includes accelerating planned transmission projects needed for system growth and reliability while researching options to deliver power back to the Drake site. In the utility’s estimates, the soonest these projects can be constructed and in operation is the end of 2023.

Benyamin said that communications with the community will be crucial so that the “public is informed, and they know exactly why we’re making those decisions.”

The utility wants to have a “good conversation with our stakeholders to make sure that when we do decommission the Drake Power Plant, we are taking the right steps for us to move into the future.”

The customer is at “the center of everything we do,” said Benyamin. Adding that the utility must listen closely to its customers to proactively meet their expectations.