To paraphrase an 80s pop song, Colorado’s energy future—and present, for that matter—is so bright, we gotta wear shades.
Xcel Energy Chair, President and CEO Ben Fowke delivered a decidedly upbeat keynote address about advancements in the rapidly-changing utility industry to a packed house of more than 700 at last night’s Voices of Experience event at the University of Denver’s Newman Center for the Performing Arts.
Fowke—who was appointed to the National Infrastructure Advisory Council by President Obama in 2016—was introduced by second year MBA student Alice Havill, who spoke of her own work in the energy industry and noted, “The ability to offer a stable and sustainable energy supply is an important problem to tackle as it can make all the difference between a community’s advancement forward and its stagnation.”
After taking the stage, Fowke made a pitch to the students in attendance, encouraging those with interest to pursue careers in the energy industry. “We have the opportunity to beat one of the biggest challenges we have—perhaps on the planet earth—and that’s addressing the risk of climate change. I think we can do it and I think we can do it in a way that’s driven by economics, that’s pragmatic and that can achieve results without sacrificing affordability or reliability. But we’re going to need the next generation of leaders.”
Citing substantial reductions in classic pollutants and carbon emissions—more than 34 percent since 2010 in Colorado alone—faster responses to natural disasters, technological advancements and increased reliance on renewable energy sources, Fowke stated that Thomas Edison wouldn’t recognize today’s energy industry. “Energy has never been more important to our society, and I think it’s never been better than it is today,” he said. “Energy today, adjusted for inflation, has never been more affordable. It’s never been more reliable. It’s also never been cleaner.”
Since 2013, typical Xcel customers in Colorado have experienced a roughly 9 percent reduction in residential electric bills. Fowke attributed this to price drops in renewable energy sources like wind and solar—as well as natural gas—coupled with greater efficiencies in consumer use. As the nation’s top wind provider for the past 13 years (Xcel is currently building the country’s largest wind farm in Colorado to be completed in the fall), the company will continue to rely on wind, solar and natural gas to fuel its operations in the eight states for which it provides utilities, and plans to retire the Comanche 1 and 2 coal plants in Pueblo, said Fowke. Additionally, Xcel will continue to invest in the power grid, including undertaking an Advanced Grid initiative that will allow for two-way communications and energy flows using digital technologies and smart meters in consumers’ homes.
Following his keynote address, Fowke sat down for a discussion with Scott McLagan, professor of the practice in the Department of Management, who worked as an engineer surveying the energy industry at the beginning of his career. McLagan covered a broad range of issues in the questions he posed to Fowke, including how the transformation to clean energy will work (“You must get very good at integrating renewables,” Fowke responded); the practice of net metering, which allows solar energy users to sell unused electricity back to the utility company (“Net metering worked when the technology was in its early development stages. As it gets ready for prime time, there is a cost shift there … and that [cost difference] is spread to other customers. It’s a very political issue.”); and whether coal will experience a resurgence (“It’s going to be retired—it’s not a question of if, it’s just a matter of when.”). Additionally, Fowke addressed the issue of cyber threats, noting that Xcel is investing in its cybersecurity department internally, fostering good cyber hygiene and working with the federal government to mitigate risks.
Among Xcel’s most important investments, according to Fowke, are those made to the communities the company serves. “I think the role of the utility is to continue to follow what our communities and our customers want. Increasingly, our communities want a cleaner energy product, they want more convenience, they want more choice … they want affordability and they’re accustomed to reliability. It’s not just about serving communities … I think part of being a good utility is really about understanding our communities.”
The Daniels College of Business Voices of Experience speaker series—sponsored by US Bank and Newmont Mining—brings CEOs and significant leaders to DU and the surrounding community to share lessons they have learned while navigating their careers. For more information on the program and upcoming speakers, visit daniels.du.edu/VOE.