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Xcel Energy, Colorado’s largest utility, aims to have zero carbon emissions by 2050 in industry-first plan

Xcel Energy says it's responding in large part to climate change and its goals will affect eight states where the company operates

Wind turbines near Matheson, Colo., are part of Xcel Energy's new 600 megawatt Rush Creek Wind Project. Rush Creek, which became operational in October 2018, uses 300 turbines to generate enough electricity to power 325,000 homes. Xcel estimates the project will cut 1 million tons of carbon emissions each year from its system. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Xcel Energy, Colorado’s largest utility, announced an ambitious plan Tuesday to slash carbon emissions from its electrical generation by 80 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels, and emit zero carbon emissions across the eight states where it operates by 2050.

The industry-first initiative comes in direct response to climate change, said Ben Fowke, CEO of the Minneapolis-based company. He emphasized that affordability and reliability are key in achieving the goals.

“This risk of climate change isn’t going away and we want to be the company that does something about it and hopefully inspire others to do something about it too,” Fowke told reporters while in Colorado to announce the major initiative.

Ben Fowke, CEO of the Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy, speaks to a reporter at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science on Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018, after a news conference where the utility announced its new carbon emissions goals. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

At the same time, however, Fowke acknowledged that the technologies are not yet available on the commercial scale to actually reach zero carbon emissions by 2050. The plan is based on the hope that new technology will be developed in time to make reaching the aspirational goal possible.

“If we put our minds to it,” Fowke said, “we will find the best solution to get us there.”

That could include everything from carbon capture to nuclear energy and potentially state-level legislation giving Xcel the ability to add “research and design” on top of its work generating power. It’s notable that Xcel is aiming for zero carbon emissions and not 100 percent renewable energy generation, suggesting that carbon capture is expected to play a significant role in the plan.

Dozens attend a news conference on Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018, at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science where Xcel Energy announced its ambitious new carbon reduction goals. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Xcel’s bold move — the company says it’s the most ambitious announced to date within the electric-power industry — comes after Gov.-elect Jared Polis ran a campaign on a platform that included moving Colorado to 100 percent renewable energy by 2040. It also comes as Democrats prepare to take control of the state legislature when it reconvenes in January and plan to introduce a slate of measures to reduce carbon emissions in Colorado and boost renewable energy generation.

“It’s not only about carbon; it’s also about cleaner air, which means people will be healthier,” Polis said at an event Tuesday at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science celebrating Xcel’s pledge.

He added: “We’re showing the country the way.”

MORE: Jared Polis wants Colorado 100 percent powered by renewable energy, but talk is easier than the walk

The timing is politically opportune for Xcel to try and achieve its new goals, especially as it looks for ways to pay for what’s sure to be a pricey transition. Xcel is a regulated utility and any changes to its business model, including the addition of research and development, would require the consent of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission.

“We’re evaluating what we need in order to move forward and be successful in this environment,” Alice Jackson, president of Xcel Energy’s Colorado branch, said of possible legislation. “We don’t absolutely have to have legislation to move forward with the plan.”

But, she said, legislation would allow Xcel to “really dig into those new technologies” and move things along.

“There’s a number of efforts that we are talking to legislators about,” Polis told reporters, “including making it easier to site renewable energy projects on public land, working for a pathway for rural electric co-ops to be able to embrace renewable energy. We want to raise the cap on solar gardens … and encourage those community-level investments in renewable energy.”

Jackson added that Xcel thinks the plan “goes a long way to addressing what Gov.-elect Polis’ administration was running their platform on.” She said that increasing renewable energy is really about reducing carbon emissions — the two are one in the same.

Jackson also said the goals put the utility in line with communities across Colorado — including Pueblo and Aspen — that are seeking to be powered by 100 percent renewable energy.

MORE: Boulder, Pueblo could be the next cities to create their own utilities in pursuit of 100 percent renewable energy

“The message that this sends is, ‘You know what, we’re right there with you,’ ” she said.

The utility says it is working to be up front with its employees, especially those who work in fossil-fuel electricity generation as they make their transition to renewables and other cleaner sources.

“One of the great things about this transition is it will create tens of thousands of good, green jobs that will never be outsourced,” Polis said.

Xcel has already been moving toward cutting emissions and boosting its renewable energy portfolio in Colorado. In fact, this weekend Xcel broke several renewable energy records in Colorado: On Saturday 72.7 percent of the utility’s hourly load of customers were served by renewable energy, and 65.3 of the entire daily load was comprised of renewable generation.

In Colorado, 28.5 percent of Xcel’s electricity last year came from renewable sources – 23 percent of that was wind, with the balance from hydro and solar. The company is aiming to have about 55 percent of the electricity on its power grid in Colorado come from renewable sources by 2026.

The utility also says it has since 2005 cut carbon emissions by 35 percent in its eight-state region, which includes Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico and Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota,  Texas. Xcel has two nuclear power plants in Minnesota.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock speaks at a news conference on Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018, at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science where Xcel Energy announced its ambitious new carbon reduction goals. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Environmental groups lauded Xcel’s announcement on Monday, saying it was one of the most innovative decisions ever made by a utility in the U.S. It comes as the Trump administration is rolling back environmental protections and the president plans to pull the nation out of the Paris climate agreement.

“I believe this is the single most exciting development in the clean energy space this year,” Rich Powell, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Clear Path, said at the event. “Not only has Xcel taken the bold leadership to go first on the path that we know all U.S. utilities must go — to zero emissions by 2050 or sooner — but they’ve done it while acknowledging they’re not entirely sure how to get there. And that’s OK.”

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