Xcel Energy CEO Ben Fowke has committed the western United States’ utility to decreasing carbon emissions 80 percent by 2030 and be totally carbon free by 2050. This means the company would be going first with the most ambitious plan to transition to clean energy amongst all major investor-owned U.S. utilities.
Xcel’s plan, announced this week in Denver, affirms its long-term commitment to clean generation after demonstrating that renewable resources are now market-competitive energy solutions. The company’s 5 million customers across Western and Midwestern states receive 40 percent of their energy from cost-effective carbon-free power — primarily wind, nuclear, solar and hydro.
And this was before Xcel opened its Rush Creek wind project, the biggest single-phase wind generating facility in North America.
Xcel is a leader in putting advanced technology to work for its customers by pursuing affordable and sustainable energy solutions. This not only results in stable and competitive rates for consumers but also drives significant economic development for local communities. For example, Xcel’s recently approved Colorado Energy Plan will drive $2.5 billion of wind energy investment across eight counties in eastern Colorado.
Xcel’s commitment to eliminate emissions within only three decades is their boldest commitment to date. Even Xcel’s CEO acknowledged that bridging clean energy across the last 20 percent of the utility system, while maintaining affordability and reliability, will not be easy — and will require solutions that don’t exist today. That does not mean that this is a speculative process. The fact is that advancements over the past two decades have redefined international energy production. It is safe to assume that additional market innovation will create significant new zero-emission energy solutions over the next 30 years.
In fact, there are many exciting possibilities in the works in the U.S. that will contribute to these environmental objectives:
• Battery technology is advancing at a rapid pace and will continue to create storage options for wind and solar when the sun doesn’t shine, and the wind doesn’t blow. Xcel already putting energy storage onto the grid but this capacity will expand.
• Fossil fuels will almost assuredly be part of the clean power solution, we just need to utilize these resources more efficiently. Technologies already exist to capture and bury the carbon emissions from coal and gas plants. For example, the retrofitted Petra Nova coal plant in Texas has already captured more than a million tons of CO2 and piped it into old oil wells. In Colorado, the newest unit at Comanche coal station in Pueblo is an excellent prospect for a similar carbon-control retrofit.
• There are also options for new zero-emission natural gas plants, such as the NET Power pilot plant near Houston, that would allow Colorado to use its natural gas abundance well into a clean energy future. A generous new federal tax incentive for carbon capture signed into law this year might make the clean fossil fuel route Xcel’s best bet for affordable 24/7 power.
• Advanced nuclear offers yet another solution. While current nuclear technology is large and costly to build, a new generation of innovators are developing smaller, cheaper designs for mass manufacture and quick installation. For example, a Western-based public-private partnership between Idaho National Lab, the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems and NuScale Power has demonstrated smaller reactors are both efficient and viable.
• There are many more examples of advanced energy being developed both by private industry and national labs across the U.S., including storing wind and solar energy as clean hydrogen fuel, better harvesting geothermal energy, and tethering aerial wings with turbines to capture powerful winds at high altitude.
These examples demonstrate that Xcel’s zero-emission commitment is possible if our country applies innovation across all energy sources. This “all-of-the above energy” plan will ensure that the country is producing the most energy resources based on objective cost and environmental factors.
Our organizations support Xcel’s bold commitment. We are part of a growing chorus of conservatives around the country who acknowledge the risks of carbon emissions, and believe that harnessing American ingenuity will lead to energy solutions that both enhance the U.S. economy and our environment.
Rich Powell is executive director of the ClearPath Foundation, which advocates for conservative clean energy policy. Jon Anderson is Director of The Western Way, a nonprofit organization focused on conservative solutions to western U.S. conservation issues.