Get Big Pivots

Once an international ballerina, she is now helping guide Xcel Energy’s toward a goal of emissions-free electricity by 2050. Here’s some of what she’s thinking.


by Allen Best

Alice Jackson brings a diverse background to Xcel Energy’s new position of senior executive for planning the company’s future of energy. As a girl she was a ballerina who performed internationally, aspired to be a surgeon but instead became a computer programmer.

She was working at Enron, her first job out of college, when it collapsed. “I learned what it feels like to get laid off with 3,000 of your closest friends and not know what the next day or the next paycheck is going to come from,” she says. Still working in Houston, near the town of Spring, where she was reared, she then started making her mark at Occidental Petroleum.

Joining Xcel Energy at its Amarillo office in the Texas panhandle, she says, her work became more than a job. It was, she decided, a way she could make a difference in the way that she had once hoped to be a surgeon. She arrived in Denver in 2013, and soon after gave birth to the fourth of four boys who now range in age from 8 to 19.

Computer programming seems like an odd stepping stone to becoming a high-ranking executive at one of the nation’s largest utilities, but she describes a certain logic. In information technology, she explains, she had to design systems with internal logic that nonetheless made sense to outside users. With a utility, there is also an internal logic that must mesh with customers, regulators, and other stakeholders.

In early June, on her first day in her new position, Big Pivots sat down with her at her office in downtown Denver, the windows from her 11th-floor office opening to an expansive view to the west, to discuss nagging, unanswered questions about how to fully decarbonize electricity while keeping a lid on costs and maintaining reliability, and also about balancing home and work.

This interview was edited extensively for length.


Alice Jackson

Big Pivots: How do you balance your home life and this broad purview of the world that you need?

Alice Jackson: I would never say that I have a balance. It ebbs and flows depending what the greatest needs are. You figure it out with your partner, my husband, how to make it all come together. From my family side, there’s appreciation for the value that I am contributing to society. And from the work side there’s an appreciation that I have a family. It ebbs and flows, but more than anything, it’s acceptance. And there’s a lot of self-forgiveness at times for maybe missing a few things, figuring out how to, you know, make life work.


Pivots: Your new position at Xcel Energy is great title for a business card. What’s your elevator description?

Jackson: This new team is responsible for building the energy system of the future. I deliberately call it an energy system versus the electric system or the natural gas system, because it really is looking at how these different energy systems are coming closer together.


Pivots: How would you contrast Colorado and Minnesota, the two states in which Xcel has the most dominant positions, as well as the other six states in which Xcel operates?

Jackson: Xcel Energy operates in the upper peninsula of Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Colorado, Texas, and New Mexico. Those jurisdictions have not only geographic differences, but also climate differences and political differences.

Interest levels differ in how you build out the system. Incredibly consistent among all of them is the expectations our customers have of us of having a highly reliable system that is affordable and is increasingly clean.


Pivots: How does the regulatory environment in Minnesota, in particular, differ from Colorado?

Jackson: Colorado typically sees the policy changes more quickly. For example, Colorado has some of the first legislation around electric vehicle adoption. Minnesota is considering that now but catching up quickly. Whereas (Minnesota) is also ahead of us on some other things. So they started looking at advanced metering before we did in Colorado. And even though we’re installing it first in Colorado, they were more advanced on the theory behind it and the need for it.

The biggest difference is they have nuclear in Minnesota, whereas we don’t in our other jurisdictions.


Pivots: What excites you about this new position? But what could divert your attention from the family dinner at times?

Jackson: The energy system of the future really excites me. We really are looking at how is this going to come together, with distribution interacting more with the transmission level. Think about rooftop, solar and community solar garden installations, but also EVs and battery storage being added at the distribution level, where customers are making the choices and the batteries of those EVs potentially becoming not only consumers but also generators. How does that then flow back onto the transmission system?

How will the changing climate and weather impact these systems? And what’s the resiliency look like between them, how they would support each other? Does that lead to more microgrid areas?

In beneficial electrification, are you converting customers that have historically heated their homes with gas to home-heating with electricity?

And how do we make investments as a utility that are optimized? For example, if we go into a neighborhood because a pad-mount transformer is at end of life, something malfunctioned, or we had a bad weather storm that caused damages. Do you put the exact same one back in, or do you upgrade it in expectation that this same neighborhood’s going to have more EVs and more rooftop solar, so you don’t have to come back again?

Those are the types of questions that this team is going to be looking at. It excites me to think of what does this look like 10 years down the road? How do we start preparing for that now? What are the investments we can make to lower costs for customers and increase resiliency and reliability as we move forward?

Comanche Generating Station

At Pueblo, Colorado’s largest solar project, Bighorn, sits next to its largest coal-fired generating station, Comanche. Photo/Allen Best

Pivots: In the context of Colorado, Xcel has made only a very early start on microgrids, I believe in a project in Denver’s Central Park neighborhood. How do you see microgrids coming about — particularly, I guess in the context of Boulder, where there is great interest.

Jackson: In Boulder, we have our energy partnership agreement. We’re working closely with them to look at things like microgrids. Does it make sense in certain of the canyons that are reached with greater difficulty or might be separated due to some kind of weather event?

Does it make sense in other places, such as community centers, including fire and police stations and other places when you might want resiliency built into their systems by doing small microgrids?

On a large scale, does it make sense that you build those out or for an industrial park or for the airport? What does it look like to build out those systems so that they could truly isolate from the grid and operate for a period of time?

How do you cost that out? Does that cost go to everyone on the system or just those that are on the microgrid?

There are questions of how this would be done, not from a physics perspective, but also from a financial perspective.


Pivots: How long do you think will be needed to resolve some of those questions before we start seeing a transformation of electrical system at various places—for example, at the airport?

Jackson: Probably a couple of years to have those conversations, to identify what’s the best way to do this for the customers on the system and where the investments would be made. I know we’re already examining the best situation or places to do it first.


Pivots: What concerns do you have about resource adequacy in Colorado and other states?

Jackson: As a utility, we have a responsibility for reliability for our customers. And part of that reliability is resource adequacy: Are there enough generation assets available at any point in time, under normal weather conditions, to satisfy the needs of the customer?

In the West, we have seen a decrease in resource adequacy. The Western Electric Coordinating Council has done a good job of highlighting where some of those decreases have occurred.

In Colorado, we go through the electric resource planning process with the Public Utilities Commission to look at whether we, as an investor-owned utility, have adequate resources to meet the needs of the system. And then we stress-test that with sensitivities to look at, for example, if we have really extreme weather, are we still able to meet the needs of our customers?

We still require the combustion turbines of natural gas resources in order to be able to meet the resource adequacy needs of our system. We don’t have other technologies that can take that place and provide the resiliency and the longevity that’s necessary. They are the insurance policy to make sure that when we have events like winter storm Uri or there’s a really high heat wave in the West that makes it so that there is no excess energy for you to import, that we have the resources on the system to maintain reliability for our customers in Colorado.

That doesn’t mean (those new systems) are not coming or that you can’t fire those natural gas generators of today with an alternative fuel in the future and get to zero carbon. That requires continual evaluation. It’s something that my new team has significant responsibility for.

transmission lines, Colorado, Allen Best

Colorado is kind of like the Hawaii of the West. It’s an island, with limited transmission capability. beyond its borders. Photo/Allen Best

Pivots: Let’s talk about a regional transmission organization. The question is whether Colorado might be knitted together with existing organizations east or west or – as you’ve said in the past – with some third way. Has your thinking advanced on that? And once again, since Xcel has so much service territory in the Midwest, are there ways that we might want to move east instead of west?

Jackson: All great questions. We are looking at a lot right now. As the Public Service Co. of Colorado, we’re kind of like the Hawaii of the West. We’re in a bit of a donut hole. To the east of us you have the east-west interconnection, the major dividing line in the United States between electrical grids. The only way that you move power across that is through AC-DC conversion portals.

This was designed many moons ago, deliberately so, to provide a higher level of reliability on the system. If there were a cascading outage on the Eastern half of the U.S., it wouldn’t then take out the West, and vice versa. And you could help each other restart as you needed to. But it makes it harder for us to share energy to the east and for us to get energy from the east when we need it.

You have hundreds of gigawatts of load on the Western interconnection. You have transfer capacity of 1.5 gigawatts between the east and the west. It’s a very small amount that you can move back and forth between the East and the West. Going east would take a significant amount of investment.


Pivots: How much investment?

Jackson: On a DC-type basis, it would be billions of dollars. For an AC interconnection, you’d have to put DC ties on our borders to the rest of the West in order to bridge that divide.


Pivots: You don’t think the federal government will fund that sort of investment anytime soon?

Jackson: I do not, but I don’t personally know.

Then we look west at the utilities that are close to us. We look at how do you take the balancing area that we’re in and would you consolidate that somewhere else? What would be the transmission investment necessary to have better interconnections?

We’re looking at all those things: How do we better interconnect with other utilities? Where are benefits for those other utilities, maybe to get access to the wind resources on our Eastern plains? And how does it help our customers?

It comes down to does it help with system reliability? Does it improve resource adequacy as a whole? And does it increase, maintain, or decrease costs for our customers as a whole?


Pivots: Mark Gabriel of United Power says he believes his electrical cooperative will be in an organized market by 2024 or 2025. Do you think that could be possible?

Jackson: I absolutely think there’s a high probability we will be participating in a day-ahead, energy and ancillary services market, probably in that timeframe. I’m not yet convinced of the timeframe for the fully organized market because of the complexity that we face in the West. How we operate transmission is very different than the East. We have contractual pathways in the West, bilateral contracts with complicated ownership rights. Much work must happen to make those flow-based pathways open to anyone on the system. That will take unpacking that long contractual history that we have in the West on each one of these lines in order to move forward.

That is the real question when you sit down and talk with utilities in the West about what the potential is for us to collaborate on an organized wholesale market. It’s the question about how do you step into it? With the population density of the West and the distance between our major city centers, there’s a higher hurdle to show cost benefits to our customers from the transmission investment that’s necessary to build out a very integrated system. That’s why we’re doing things like the Western Market Exploratory Group, to have those dialogues. I am very encouraged. We’ve made more progress than I’ve seen in the West in a very long time.


Pivots: In recent months?

Jackson: In the past year. The openness for that dialogue and the recognition that for resource adequacy across the region, we are dependent on each other. I think there’s a lot of hope.


Pivots: You have said many times that to go from 80% to a 100% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions will require new forms of firm zero-carbon resources. What is the range of these resources, both in Colorado and other states too?

Jackson: We are not a research and development organization. Part of my duty—our duty as a utility—is to identify where are the energy hours, the kilowatt hours that are not currently, or don’t have a high probability of, being served from renewable or a zero-carbon resource? Then, it’s a matter of identifying the patterns. Is it a spring month that looks like this under these conditions?

Then putting that out there to laboratories, universities, private entities to help develop the technology that we need to fill those gaps.

People talk about battery storage. They’re like, just build your wind, solar and battery storage technology. (Using) battery storage (that we have today) will not provide the reliability our customers demand of us. Lithium-ion batteries of four hours duration are great as a peaking resource, but not for a three-day winter storm unless you daisy-chain them, and that’s really expensive.

Long-duration battery storage is maybe not as efficient in a round trip but it solves the hours that we’re unable to solve. We’re looking at those technologies, such as that of Form Energy. That’s a long duration battery storage. That’s exciting to see. Is it going to have a part to play?

Hydrogen is another one. It’s been five years out for about the past five decades. Are we really into five years out now? There’s a lot of investment that’s going into it, and it has significant potential because you can use excess resources from wind and solar potentially to generate. It takes water, which is another question, especially in the arid West.

Deep geothermal is also very exciting. Can we use the technology that was built for fracking to access warmer layers of the earth to provide geothermal heating of water and do the heat exchange and create energy we can use?

Figuring out how does that come together? Is it a solution? Is it the right solution? Is it going to be cost effective? These are all questions that utilities are coming together to work on.

I love pointing to two areas where we directly invest shareholder money, not customer money.  One is Energy Impact Partners, which is a venture capital organization that invests in up-and-coming technology companies that are looking at these problems. We also invest shareholder dollars along with other utilities in the Electric Power Resource Institute’s Low Carbon Resources Initiative.

We’re looking at a variety of opportunities and options, including SMRs (small modular nuclear reactors) in the next generation. So there’s a bunch of different things to look at right now.

Rush Creek wind farm

Rush Creek, located southeast of Denver, near Limon, is one of several major wind farms that Xcel has put on line—but with many, many more coming. 2018 photo/Allen Best

Pivots: What do you need to see in nuclear to convince you that it might have a role?

Jackson: Cost-effective investment in construction of the new versions. The Idaho National Laboratories is working on, I think, a fourth-generation SMR. It would be the first in the United States to get built. That’s something we’ll watch very closely.


Pivots: That won’t come online until around 2030 or something like that.

Jackson: I don’t think we’re going to see something before 2030. It’s a longer-term one that we have to keep an eye on.


Pivots: Are there any particular elements of energy storage that really have caught your attention the recent months or the last year?

Jackson: I think lithium-ion has made some great advancements as far as price and in the density of batteries. You’ve been able to double the size of the battery in the same amount of space over the past several years. The technology itself, including the round-trip efficiencies, hasn’t changed a whole lot.

When I start thinking about other types of battery storage, a lot of people tend to forget about pumped-storage hydro. It’s a proven technology, but it also takes up more land space. So you’ve gotta figure out is there a right place. But the longer duration is essential to the system.

We need a variety. It’s not going to be, oh, this is the golden ticket. It has to be a variety of pieces of puzzle that come together to build the system.


Pivots: Incidentally, just last week I was in Unaweep Canyon, where your company has expressed interest in creating a pumped-storage hydro project. How far away are we from having any kind of an idea about whether that might be an option?

Jackson: Developing pump-hydro facilities is usually a 10-year process to determine whether you’re going to break ground on it. This early stage we’re in may come to a conclusion sooner rather than later.

Unaweep Canyon March 2022

A pickup truck travels in the western side of Colorado’s Unaweep Canyon in March 2022. Photo/Allen Best

Pivots: During your four years as chief executive of Xcel’s operations in Colorado, the state has made — pardon me, but I have to use this expression — a big pivot. What about your time here are you most proud. And what has been the most difficult part of those four years?

Jackson: There’s much similarity between what I’m most proud of as a leader here in Colorado and what was the most difficult. Two-plus years of my four years in this seat have been consumed by the pandemic and operating in a very different environment while half of our workforce in Colorado worked from home and the other half couldn’t. Our gentlemen and ladies who are our field employees had to stay in the field. When somebody had an emergency call to us and said, I smell gas in my home, we could not say, we’re not coming. We had to show up. It’s our duty. And we did. But there was a lot of uncertainty, lots of questions.

The other piece of what I’m really proud of is we continued to look at options, do the outreach, have the conversations about how to maintain a reliable system that is cost-effective for our customers and will be increasingly clean and beat the goals that we set out. We’re not going to miss them. We’re not going to delay them.

So those are pieces that took a lot of hard work by the team here at the company to figure out. How do you negotiate over Zoom with 65 people simultaneously to figure out what is the pathway that everybody can agree to?


Pivots: Before the pandemic started, in September 2019, I saw you in Pueblo, and of course, Comanche 3 has been a big issue and will continue to be an issue looking forward. Does Comanche 3 provide any lessons as you now try and create the energy system of the future?

Jackson: When you build a large asset on which the system depends, there’s always a question of whether it was the right decision versus building less sizable assets or in a more geographically diverse area. I think those are questions that we will ask.

I don’t believe that we’re going to see (another) generation unit of that size. We were talking about nuclear and small modular reactors. There’s a reason that you’re looking at more flexible resources for the system, because it’s no longer about building base load units that are on the majority of the time.

We’ve kind of flipped the puzzle a little bit. We’re building significant amounts of wind and solar that are significantly variable. So we are now building assets that are very flexible to work around the wind and the solar of our system. It’s a very different paradigm. We’re going to see smaller assets that have a lot of flexibility.


Pivots: I’ve been told that you were a competitive dancer.

Jackson: Yes, I was a ballerina. I’m blind in my right eye. I was very independent as a child, as you can imagine, and very stubborn. I decided to dress myself when I was two, and I went into my closet and pulled on my dress and the hanger broke and went through my eye. And so I have very, very reduced vision in my right eye.

My parents, to help me with facial awareness, put me in ballet because I was a fairly active child. My parents couldn’t pay for my lessons. I was fortunate to be on scholarships.

From the time I was 11, I traveled internationally during the summers and advanced with different ballet companies in summer programs and organizations.

I came back from one summer in London, dancing with the company there, and I had an offer to join them permanently. My parents said, ”It’s up to you.” I decided not to go, because academically I was always really interested in being a doctor.

I still enjoy the arts, whether it’s some form of theater or ballet, or the symphony or opera. It’s just something that connects with me.


Pivots: A doctor? Why?

Jackson: Why I wanted to be a surgeon? Because at the end of the day I wanted to help people. I had found this article about a ballerina who, while she was a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, went to medical school and became a pediatrician. I shared that with my ballet instructor. She was like, oh, you can’t do that. I was like, well, why not? Ultimately I pursued the academic side.


Pivots: So instead of becoming a ballerina or a surgeon, you became a computer programmer who —after an important stop at Occidental Petroleum in Houston — went on to join Xcel and become a chief executive.

Jackson: I was still down in Houston and working for Oxy, I had young kids, right? Both my husband and I come from, let’s say, low to moderate income families. We put ourselves through college, all those things. A lot of it was about figuring out how you feed your family, how you plan for their future.

When I took the job with Xcel and we moved to Amarillo, it was a job. It was completely a job. Maybe a year or 18 months after being with Xcel in Texas and New Mexico it went from being a job to being a passion and a mission. It became a way to give back. There is not another company business role that I could have that is more impactful to people’s lives.


Pivots: What triggered this new outlook?

Jackson: More than anything, just sitting with people and listening. It’s something I’ve done ever since then. I had a great leader down there who’d just like go out and sit down and talk with people. And that was literally sitting in substations and talking with substation engineers and understanding how they worked, how they were impacted by decisions and sitting with community leaders or farmers or ranchers, just understanding how the decisions that we were making flowed down and impacted their lives.

There’s not another socially active organization that I could work for that would impact more people. So I think of it as, as if I do a really good job, I am not only serving my community, I am also serving my owners and I can deliver on that by doing a really good job of balancing and looking at what does it mean to be a leader of the clean energy transition? What does it mean to keep bills low simultaneously? And then also look at how do I enhance the customer experience to make sure that they are involved, educated and understanding. So to me, it is a mission.


Pivots: Were they willing to talk about climate change or was it the other things?

Jackson: No, I think a lot of it, particularly in Texas and New Mexico, was about cost.

I moved here in November 2013, very pregnant with my fourth son. And in fact, David Eves, my boss, drove me to the hospital. That was in the midst of what people referred to as solar wars. There was a big conversation around rooftop solar and net metering. People assumed that Xcel Energy was anti solar. Really what we were looking at was the cost impact on our customers who can’t afford it? The public perception was very poor on the conversation, the actions that we were taking, the questions we were asking.

I learned very much how to sit down and look at others’ perspectives, in figuring out how do I understand what their objectives are. And if I align with their objectives, maybe there’s a different way. We can both achieve a common outcome that isn’t averse to my company or our customers or to them. Finding that sweet spot was really my biggest challenge was when I first came to Colorado.


Pivots: Have the origins of you and your husband in low to moderate income families given you a perspective that informs your decisions.

Jackson: Yes. We’re a very faith-based foundational, we have very values-driven decision-making in our household, and hopefully we’re passing that on to our four boys as well. Yeah.


Pivots: Good. Well, thank you.

Jackson: Absolutely. It was fun, and it’s nice to see you in person.


Top photo courtesy of Jirsa Hedrick structural engineers.


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