Xcel’s coal-free plan is politics not reality

Xcel Energy plans to shutter its two remaining coal plants in the Upper Midwest a decade earlier than scheduled — a move that will make the utility coal-free in the region by 2030,” Mary Divine reported for the St. Paul Pioneer Press this week.

That’s big news. All the more so because it’s not the full measure of Xcel’s ambition.

The company will rely on natural gas plants to fill in the gap left by coal, but by 2050 plans to scrap even those to produce “100% carbon-free electricity.”

One might be excused for seeing this all as a bit of a pie in the sky.

What endeavor by humanity, made up as it is by carbon-based life forms, is ever going to be 100% carbon-free?

What sort of hubris would lead anyone to think they know what the energy markets are going to be a decade hence, let alone by 2050?

But I digress. Let’s talk about the here and now.

Driving Xcel’s decision-making are political considerations.

This plan was the product of a bargain with political activists.

Consider this from Divine’s report: “Xcel worked with a coalition of business, union, government and environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, Fresh Energy and the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy over the past 18 months to create its Upper Midwest Energy Plan.”

Xcel created this plan to (supposedly) go carbon-free, and in exchange the Sierra Club dropped their opposition to the company buying a gas-fired power plant in Mankato.

At a time when we could be working on using existing and reliable resources, such as our plentiful reserves of coal, in ways that are better for the environment, Xcel has instead struck a political bargain with environmental activists to move toward total reliance on energy sources like wind and solar. Both of which are not yet capable of providing consistent baseload power.

Will they be capable of doing that by 2050? Nobody really knows.

This is the problem with basing decisions about something as important as our power supply on political bargains. Wind and solar have favored political status, but we don’t really know if they can replace things like coal or natural gas.

We know coal and gas plants work, but the fossil fuel industries are out of political favor, so there’s not widespread interest in helping them work better.

Meanwhile, Xcel is using weasel words when asked what the impact of all this will be on those of us who receive utility bills in the mailbox.

“Rates should stay at or below the cost of CPI or inflation,” Xcel CEO Ben Fowke told the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

“Should.”

And what if they don’t? What if the markets for wind and solar power shift as the impact from government subsidies which powered their boom fade away? What if the power storage technology needed to make intermittent sources like wind and solar isn’t available by 2050?

Is the Sierra Club going to pay for the increases in our utility bills?

Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Listen to his Plain Talk Podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RobPort.

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