Do you want fossil free electricity?

By Tim Wulling

Xcel Energy plans to provide fossil free electricity in 2050 and to build a new fossil gas power plant in 2027.

Does that seem like a contradiction?

Xcel’s Integrated Resource Plan, now before the Public Utili­ties Commission, shares a wealth of information about the electric grid that supplies us and about what Xcel has in mind for the next 15 years. It plans to close all of its remaining coal plants, increase wind and solar, extend the license of one nuclear plant and build a new fossil gas power plant in Becker, adding to a sizable portfolio of gas plants. (“Fossil gas” is a more descriptive term for natural gas, which is in fact a fossil fuel.)

To avoid building the gas plant, we must understand how a renewable grid differs from the traditional grid—and how our own choices can ease the transition to renewables.

In the grid we’ve been living with, central power plants generate however much electricity customers demand. In a renewable grid, the amount of electricity available depends a lot on nature – is the wind blowing, the sun shining? We will need to adjust more of our need for electricity to what is available at a given time. More “demand-response” can do this, things done on our side of the meter to help the grid balance supply and demand.

If you are signed up for Xcel’s Saver’s Switch, you already partici­pate in demand-response. On hot summer afternoons, Xcel throttles your and others’ air conditioning enough to make a difference to the grid but not enough for individuals to notice. In exchange, you get a credit on your electric bill.

Other demand-response possibilities benefit owners of electric vehicles who charge the batteries at night when Xcel’s load is light, in exchange for a favorable price on electricity.

Similarly, some homes with electric space heating store heat at night in ceramic bricks that release their heat during the day when Xcel has a bigger load and higher price. A tank water heater also provides thermal storage that in coming years will be used for more demand-response, enabling Xcel to determine when renewable energy is available to heat the water without affecting the customer’s ability to draw hot water at any time.

So, why does Xcel think it needs a new gas power plant? Maybe they think not enough customers will sign up for demand-response programs. Maybe it’s easier to control the technical aspects of the grid (like frequency regulation and voltage support) with established technology than it is to figure it out for new technology. Maybe Xcel wants the financial return it gains from building central power plants?

But, in light of climate change, what do you want? Tell the Public Utilities Commission. They are accepting comments from the public about Xcel’s Integrated Resource Plan until Jan.15.

Something else you can do: Every time you purchase a new appliance or furnace ask yourself, “Will it still be operating as 2050 approaches? If so, shouldn’t it be electric, not gas?” Going fossil free by 2050 means weaning ourselves from the gas lines to our houses.

Tim Wulling is a retired engineer, lifelong renewable energy advocate and member of Saint Paul 350, a chapter of the MN350 climate solutions nonprofit. He lives in St. Anthony Park.

Read up, then speak up

To inform yourself more fully, go to the source: The executive summary of Xcel’s Integrated Resource Plan, provides a good overview. Go to the Minnesota Public Utilities website at mn.gov/puc and click on “eDockets.” Next, in the Document ID field, enter 20197-154051-01 and click “Search.” A link to the document will appear.

To tell the PUC what you think of Xcel’s plan, fill out the form at mn.gov/puc/consumers/speak-up by entering document number E002/RP-19-368 in the field that calls for it. Hint: Write your comments separately before going to the website, then copy and paste them into the online form.

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