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Springs Utilities' new chief talks about renewables, economic development, power and water conservation 

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click to enlarge New Springs Utilities CEO Aram Benyamin faces challenges. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • New Springs Utilities CEO Aram Benyamin faces challenges.

The new CEO of city-owned Colorado Springs Utilities has his work cut out for him: The $4 billion enterprise is behind the curve when it comes to integrating renewables into the city's energy portfolio, and there's also pressure to secure more water rights to feed growth for decades to come.

Aram Benyamin, appointed on Oct. 2, oversees water, wastewater and power operations that deliver services to more than 200,000 customers in the region. Chosen in a nationwide search to replace longtime CEO Jerry Forte, who retired last May, Benyamin was plucked from the ranks, having worked for Utilities less than four years as energy supply manager.

Before that, he served more than 30 years at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power where he was hired for his first job out of college after immigrating at age 19 from his native Lebanon. He became a United States citizen five years later.

Benyamin left L.A. after the election of a mayor (whom he didn't support) who harshly and publicly criticized water and power employees amid unpopular rate increases and other controversies. At the time, questions circulated about how two nonprofit agencies, which oversaw training and safety procedures for utilities workers, spent $40 million in money contributed by the city and by the workers themselves over 10 years. Benyamin was a board member of the nonprofits and says all the money was accounted for appropriately, but critics argued some went toward unnecessary expenses, including dinners and travel.

In any event, Benyamin, 61, now is paid $480,000 a year (nearly $33,000 more than the seasoned Forte) and finds himself in charge of an agency that's drawn heat for a range of topics, including air and water pollution. The future road could be equally bumpy, due to an uncertain regulatory environment, varied utilities costs and an elected utilities board that might not understand complexities of the industry.

Benyamin ranks worker safety as his top priority, noting his many decades in the field elbow-to-elbow with line workers. "I know the work that the front-line people do, and my management style is always to make sure that I pay attention to their needs, their training, their tools," he says.

Second in line is being "frugal." He says he wants every Utilities employee "to have that urgency to make sure every penny they spend, that they are doing that for the ratepayers for the right reason."

Third, he says, is his desire to treat all sectors of the city equally, but he's also an unapologetic cheerleader for Utilities' involvement in economic development, calling for "alignment" among Utilities, city planners, developers and investors.

"I think we have a role to play in clarifying and making sure the risk that developers [face] is removed," he says, "so investments come in in a structured way and [developers] see this as a welcoming place for them to develop [and] make sure that they don't come in here with a bunch of question marks about whether we have enough water, or we have enough energy or we have enough infrastructure to sustain the plan they have."

For example, he notes that the lower downtown area is poised to explode with development around the Olympic Museum, an $11.3 million pedestrian bridge between the museum and America the Beautiful Park and a new sports stadium. Or, as Benyamin labels them, "flashy things."

Here's where Utilities can step in and parlay ratepayer money into a vibrant addition to the community, he says. "We do want to be the agent to have the infrastructure in place, so it's a welcoming place for developers to come and invest money without having this big question mark about what the risk is for them not to have services," he says.

That bonanza downtown naturally leads to the question about Drake Power Plant, a coal-burning hulk that critics point out spews harmful emissions, although pollution control equipment was installed at a cost of roughly $160 million a few years ago.

In a previous decision, City Council, which also comprises the Utilities Board, decided to keep Drake powered up until 2035. But board members keep revisiting the issue.

On Dec. 17, the topic arose again. Utilities Board Chair Tom Strand tells the Indy via text message that depending on costs of replacing the energy Drake produces, "I, personally, would like to move the closure ... up at least five years to 2030," largely to accommodate development around the proposed stadium. Board member Richard Skorman says he'd like to see it closed even sooner.

Benyamin sees his job as not advocating one way or another, but doing the leg work for the board in setting out costs and feasibility of various options.

"The conversation we have now is to get more options on the table to make sure that if we have large dollar amounts that we must invest in, say, in the 2020-2022 time period, the board is aware of the things we have to invest in on the units that will take us to 2035," he says.

He'll have to find a way to "rewire" the community if Drake is torn down, because the city's distribution system largely revolves around Drake.

"What we want to do," he says, "is come up with the most optimal scenario that will give us the least amount of investment we must do in order for us to jump from where we are today to the next scenario of where we have generation and transmission, and the renewables we're bringing in."

While other utilities, like Xcel Energy, have set ambitious goals to generate most of their power from renewables within a couple decades, Springs Utilities will reach 20 percent only after the addition of 150 megawatts of solar power, which was recently approved by the board but is not yet online.

All that said, Benyamin says, a lot of power and water efficiency can be gained through conservation programs, rather than adding new resources.

For instance, Utilities has issued an RFP for Advanced Meter Infrastructure that will enable time-of-day metering. That means if you run your clothes dryer at 2 p.m. on a summer day when power demands are high, you'll pay more than if you run it at 8 p.m.

Regarding water, he says, the city is far from aggressive in its recycling programs, though there are seven or eight non-potable users, including Drake and some golf courses. More could be done in that respect, he says.

When it comes to stretching the city's capabilities into neighboring communities outside the city limits, Benyamin won't dismiss the idea out of hand.

"We have the obligation to serve the city of Colorado Springs," he says. "As far as extending services to others, every case is different. In some cases it makes sense for us to extend the services."

That might run contrary to an argument made by Mayor John Suthers, who led a successful push earlier this year to change the 1988 annexation agreement for the 18,500-acre Banning Lewis Ranch on the city's Eastside to deter developers from leapfrogging over the city and into the county. Access to Utilities water remains a major selling point for developers.

But Benyamin says if extending services grows the rate and tax base, everyone could benefit.

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