In Minnesota, Xcel Energy put out a pledge to be carbon-free by 2050 via news release late in the day on Tuesday — complete with prepared quotes from Colorado politicians.
In Colorado, it was a big story, the first big utility pledging to be carbon-free. And it was played that way by Xcel at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, where political leaders got invited to speak, too.
It certainly looks like a savvy PR move to invite that state’s governor-elect, who had just successfully campaigned in part on a pledge of all-renewable electricity statewide by 2040, to stand behind a podium with an Xcel Energy logo and talk carbon-free electricity.
Yet attributing this pledge to simple PR doesn’t give Xcel nearly enough credit.
The desire for carbon-free energy in the left-leaning enclaves of Colorado aren’t that different from those of many Fortune 500 companies here in Minnesota. And providing what people want is fundamental to what a successful business does.
What we have here might simply be a case of a big company going carbon-free to meet the rising expectations of its customers.
Xcel’s pledge actually came in two parts. One was a promise to deliver completely carbon-free electricity to customers by 2050. The other was a nearer-term promise to reduce carbon emissions 80 percent by 2030 from the emission levels of 2005 in the eight states the Minneapolis-based company serves.
One big difference between these two objectives, as explained by Xcel Chairman and CEO Ben Fowke last week, is that the 2030 plan can be pulled off with existing, commercially viable technology. To make it all the way to carbon-free by 2050, some technologies or approaches not yet proven will have to be invented or perfected.
Fowke doesn’t sound that worried about achieving the 2050 goal. An electric utility isn’t really set up to do a lot of research and development, and Xcel won’t be taking on big technology risks, yet he sounds confident that solutions will present themselves.
He described the company as “technology agnostic,” committed to generating cheap, reliable and carbon-free electric power rather than to any particular process or technology.
Carbon-free isn’t the same thing as completely renewable, either, meaning that the company could come across some form of commercially viable carbon capture process that would allow for fossil fuel-fired power generation to continue.
The company made its announcement now for a few reasons, Fowke said, including that the recent climate forecasts are only getting more alarming. “To ignore the risk I think is really just foolish,” he said, “particularly when we can take out an insurance policy that costs next to nothing.”
His allusion to costs of next to nothing wouldn’t have been possible 10 years ago, when a pledge to go carbon-free would’ve been seen as pie-in-the-sky. What’s made it possible now is the continuing decline in the cost of renewable energy.
“We’re buying wind at less than $20 a megawatt hour today,” Fowke said. “That compares to $65 where it was 10 years ago. That is a better deal than I can do on the fossil side, and that’s even with low natural gas prices.”
This price for wind generation includes the effect of a federal production tax credit subsidy, which is scheduled to roll off. Fowke said the expiring subsidy will lead to only a “temporary uptick” in cost, and added that he was once skeptical that there would be any more significant efficiencies to be gained from wind generation.
He’s already been proven wrong. As he put it, “I am very optimistic we will continue to see costs decline” for renewable generation.
And the company has probably made more progress in building its renewable portfolio than customers realize. Last weekend in Colorado the company reached a new high-water mark for renewable power generation, with nearly 73 percent of the power used by customers for one hour coming from renewable sources. That’s a little higher than the record reached here in the Upper Midwest.
As Fowke described it, a low enough price for power is obviously part of giving customers what they want. They want carbon-free energy but don’t want to pay any more for it, and they sure don’t want to see the electric utility take a technology risk that means the lights might not come on when it’s time to open for business on Monday.
The customer’s case for clean energy is actually an easy one to make, said Michael Noble of the clean energy research and advocacy group Fresh Energy. Solar and wind generation do not need any purchased fuel. That means that unlike fossil fuel generation, renewable generation isn’t vulnerable to spikes in prices for gas or coal, so customers can plan on stable costs for electricity.
As an example he described his plans for his own car, a new Kia Niro plug-in hybrid small crossover that he first drove home just last week. When he switches the battery charger over to night electric rates offered by Xcel, he will have effectively locked in an equivalent gasoline fuel price of 50 cents per gallon for a car rated at 105 miles per gallon.
“You and I both know that we have no idea if gas is going to be $1 per gallon or $4, or if natural gas is going to be $4 or $14” per million BTUs, he said.
Now higher gas prices won’t be something he worries about.
Fowke said Xcel’s chief financial officer has been taking telephone calls from shareholders, and Fowke understood them to be more curious about Xcel’s carbon-free pledge than skeptical.
“It’s important that they see it as something positive,” Fowke said, “because if they do, it almost assures that other utilities across the nation will adopt this model.”
At last check, at the end of a very rough week for U.S. stocks, Xcel Energy shares traded at just a touch under their 52-week high price, at more than $53 per share.