OAG360: Bruce, can you tell me about what the University of Colorado is doing on the renewables front?
BRUCE BENSON: Well, we’ve got what we call SEEC- the Sustainability, Energy and Environment Complex. We’re building a whole big building up there for that. That, to me, is really important.
Some of the other things we’re working on are NRL – Natural Renewable Energy, which was started before I became president, but is a collaborative project between Mines, CU and CSU. And there’s RASE – Renewable and Sustainable Energy, which I chaired for a while. So we look at all of that.
I will tell you, that I did build a geothermal hot water plant once, and it was wonderful when we had all those crazy subsidized contracts. When those ran out after 10 years, it became too expensive. So does renewable really make sense? Not right now. Particularly when gas is under $3 and oil is $58.
There’s hydro obviously, but people just don’t like a lot of dams. I think a lot of things that they are doing out in wind and oceans, and freezing up
their turbines and all that other stuff, probably don’t work too well. Solar seems promising because it keeps getting better and better, and wind works in some places. Those will probably work eventually, but they don’t work today. So I think those are the things we ought to really be paying attention to.
Corn ethanol though, what a joke. It was a fiasco. My friend Bob Dole, when he was running for president in Iowa, he said, “Call me senator Ethanol.” What happened? They ran up the price of fuel. These hogs eat corn, other animals do too, so all that goes up. Then everybody starts growing corn, then the wheat crop drops off so now the prices of the wheat go up. It’s a vicious circle. And that stuff just never worked well.
OAG360: How do renewables fit into the system at CU if you are trying to run the university like a business but these ideas are not economical yet?
BENSON: Well, you do everything that needs to be done to look at the future. And this could be part of our future, probably will be part of our future, but let’s not go overboard on it. So that’s kind of how I look at it.
It’s just like what we saw happen with our hospitals in the CU medical program. Today, our hospitals have a $2.5 billion budget. Three years ago we had one hospital, now we’re involved in seven, plus we just picked up 12 more clinics, and we’re going to build ten more. On top of that, we’re going to build three new hospitals, big ones. We’re just expanding all the time and picking up more hospitals.
I told the head of all this, within two years you’re going to be bigger than the University, budget wise. She said, “I plan to be.” Well, she can go out and take over things. I’m going to go out and try to take over schools. All I can do is grow.
We’re doing huge things at the Denver campus. I mean, I just worked out a deal to come up with funding to fix the North classroom, which I always
joke and say “it’s brand new.” It was new in ’87 when I chaired the commission, but it hasn’t been touched since, and it’s a mess. Well we’re going to spend about $33 million fixing it. We’ve just built a new student commons, we just rebuilt the library, something I started when I was chairing Metropolitan State, and we expanded the science building. Probably have to put in another piece for an engineering building too, and we’re going to build a health and wellness clinic.
It’s a huge operation down there [the Denver Auraria Campus] and nobody knows it’s there. So we’re focused on growth. And they have great growth
at the campus in Colorado Springs, great growth at CU Anschutz medical—it’s full, we’re always full. We hear some bad stories about other places, where they’re down 10% and 12% and 13% so I don’t know what’s going on. We’re doing big marketing, we’re doing everything. Running it like a business.
OAG360: Has there been an experience, either in your time here at CU or during your time in the oil and gas industry, when you wish you could have done things differently?
BENSON: Sure. I believe in ‘hindsighting’ every decision you make. Sometimes you have to take risks though and think outside the box.
I got a call from one of my top people and she said, “What do you think about doing this?” I said “hell, let’s just go for it, see what you come up with. I said it may be crazy, but nothing ventured, nothing gained.” I got calls from some other people saying she was off the charts. Good. That’s where you want to be.
I believe in taking risks. If you don’t take risks, you’re never going to get much done frankly. Make sure they’re calculated risks, of course, but take risks and look at everything you do in hindsight.
I have a couple legal-pad pages of deals I’ve done through my life—with what went wrong and what went right written next to them. So yes, I examine everything critically. That’s my MO.