Colorado Springs Utilities CEO Jerry Forte has a full plate. The Colorado native who grew up in the Springs makes sure your lights stay on; your drinking water is clean and plentiful; your wastewater is none of your concern; your home is heated and your business is operating at full steam — in a sense, anyway. The exuberant Forte took some time from overseeing CSU’s nearly 1,800 employees and its mountain of projects to discuss the decommissioning of Martin Drake Power Plant, staying behind the scenes and planning for future generations.
You’re from here?
Yes, I grew up in Colorado Springs. I went from grade school through high school here. I graduated from Palmer [High School] and went to UCCS, and then graduated from the University of Colorado Boulder with a degree in civil engineering. After that I worked in Sterling as a city engineer. Then I worked in Woodland Park for a bit before going down to New Mexico for 12 years. I worked for the national laboratory in Los Alamos for a five-service utility. I came back here in 2002 and began working at CSU as chief operating officer. In 2006, I was sworn in as CEO.
Why did you decide to return?
CSU is one of the most respected utilities in the nation. It has a reputation in my industry for cutting-edge thinking. It’s customer-focused; it involves the public and it has great rates.
While in New Mexico, I would look to CSU to get ideas and while on its website, I saw an ad for a COO. I printed it out and brought it to my wife. I told her, “It reads like my heart.” Those were my exact words. What I meant was not so much the duties and responsibilities — it was the values and the commitment of the organization.
I threw in my resumé because it meant I could come home and visit my parents, who still live today in the house I grew up in. I loved my job in Los Alamos, but thought, if I was super lucky, I might get an interview.
What happened when you were offered the position?
I had to think about it for two days. I was so comfortable where I was. But I accepted and became COO, and 31/2 years later, I became interim CEO, but I had to apply again to be CEO and was selected.
What does Utilities do?
Well, our byline is that Utilities is how we’re all connected. Literally we connect into every home, business and nonprofit in this community, one way or another — we’re connected with electric, water, with gas and with wastewater.
We’re not a frontline story. In fact we feel most comfortable when we’re not in the news and no one is thinking of us. If they’re thinking about us, it’s because there’s an outage or their water didn’t turn on. We’re comfortable in the background, but we take a lot of pride being able to facilitate every great thing that happens in Colorado Springs.
I tell our people if they stopped doing their job for one day, this city stops. We don’t have that option. We have to serve.
How has the energy business changed in Colorado Springs?
Back to Gen. [William] Palmer … every generation’s focus is on water. Just like we’re doing now with the [Southern Delivery System], we’re always making sure we’re about a generation ahead. It’s always been a challenge. … SDS is investing in our children and grandchildren. We’re making sure we bring water to the Springs at a very good price. You get 2 gallons of water for a penny. That’s amazing!
In 1925, gas and electric utilities became publicly owned. We have enjoyed 90 years of public ownership, which has served the community well.
Who governs CSU?
Right now, it is City Council under its charter acting as the utilities board. City Council has done that for a long time. In the ’90s we had a change of the charter, which made utilities an enterprise of municipal government. Prior to that, utilities was under the purview of the city manager. It wasn’t until the 1940s that we became a four-service utility.
In 1925 we operated all four, but wastewater was a part of municipal government. There was a separate wastewater department and in 1948 all four consolidated.
It’s interesting because, with ordinances or budgets or tariff discussions for rate adjustments, that’s done by council wearing its Council hat. As a Utilities board, they wear a different hat. They even sit in a different building [from City Hall].
How common is that model?
It’s common. We’ve done a lot of research, especially with the governance conversations taking place right now, and utilities are all over the place. There’s almost any model you could think of. This model is common with smaller utilities. However, all utilities don’t own electric and gas. We’re one of the largest four-service utilities in the nation.
Municipalities a lot of times will do water and wastewater. Those are traditional services. But even with that we’re seeing variations. If you did an exhaustive study, you’d find some investor-owned water and wastewater utilities. But having all under one umbrella, we’re either the largest or among the largest publicly owned utilities in the country. … Having local ownership is key. In almost every generation there’s been an offer somewhere for investors to come in and purchase gas or electric [services]. … Every time the community has supported local ownership.
What are your responsibilities as CEO?
I have the most fun job in the whole world. I get to lead an organization that is committed to our mission, vision and values. Just about anywhere you go in this organization you’ll find people with high integrity, focus on customers and who do whatever it takes to get the job done.
I get to lead all that. Day-to-day I’ll work with our executive team talking about strategies. I’ll meet with board members. I’ll go out on jobs and have to wear hard hats. I get to meet with employees and I get to work with community leaders. I have an amazing job.
You are in charge of an unusual operation. Talk about your challenges.
A good example would be on the Southern Delivery System. At last count we had 460 permits we had to obtain from other agencies to build that project. That’s an incredible hurdle. There were many important things we have to comply with, but there are so many boxes to check. And you’re trying to do it in a transparent way where everything you do is an open book. And it should be, because of our ownership. For the community, there’s no better model.
Talk about the future of the Martin Drake Power Plant.
The future of Drake has been decided. In March the board is meeting to create a closure plan for Drake’s Unit 5. The board decided it will close no later than December 2017. … In [the board’s] integrated resource process, it made a decision to close the entire plant no later than 2035. We will bring plans by the end of the year on how it can be done. … There’s a lot of work we need to do with that technically. To close Unit 5, it’s not just flipping a switch, but making sure everything remaining there is safe and what needs to be removed is removed. We need to begin analyzing which is which. When closing the entire plant, the board doesn’t want just a shell left in place, but rather it wants it demolished and returned to usable space.
What was the rationale behind the closure?
There were a couple things. One is a recognition, based on the current regulatory environment, that there’s a strong likelihood there will be carbon legislation soon … and those regulations, combined with regional haze regulations, require more in terms of scrubbing and equipment for the plant. It’s a simple return on investment analysis. At what point does it make sense to look somewhere else, considering the plant’s age and required maintenance?
What place does renewable energy have in this system?
Well, we’re just about to break ground on a 10-megawatt solar array at Clear Springs Ranch toward Pueblo. … We go into wind at times and buy blocks of wind [energy]. We have a lot of hydropower in our system. We own about 35 megawatts of hydropower. We also purchase a lot of hydro from the Western Area Power Administration, which is sort of a clearinghouse for Bureau of Reclamation projects. Right now, 10-plus percent of our energy is renewable and, under our energy vision, by 2020 we want 20 percent of our energy to qualify as renewable under the state’s definition.
Is CSU prepared for the city’s anticipated growth?
We are always planning 20 to 50 years out, at least. The area that needs the most long-term planning is water. It took 20 years to build SDS. We started this project in April 1996. We’re going to have a dedication and water will come out of a pipe after 20 years of work. But that’s going to supply us the next 50 years. Check that box. As for economic development, that’s huge. Ratepayers paid a price for that — but now we’ll enjoy the dividend for the next 50 years and we can support that population growth.
Wastewater is a function of treatment facilities. We have plans to accommodate buildout. Gas is a function of supply and availability. With new technologies, gas prices have come down and we have more proven reserves.
But electricity is a whole different conversation now. Electric is a function of a lot of things. We will see a lot of technical innovations, but there will likely still be the need for fossil fuels, unless we see huge breakthroughs in battery storage. There will still be fossil fuels, but depending on what happens in the next 10 years, there may or may not be coal. I believe coal is a valuable resource. Coal’s not a problem, it’s keeping it clean. What we’re doing at Drake with the Neumann scrubbers is liberating coal. We’re saying we can do it clean.