Nuclear key to Xcel Energy's zero-carbon target

06 March 2019

US utility Xcel Energy says its current fleet of nuclear power reactors will help meet its target of reducing carbon emissions by 80% by 2030. It sees advanced reactors or small modular reactors playing a role in meeting its ultimate goal of providing zero-carbon electricity by 2050.

Prairie Island (Image: Xcel Energy)

The company, which operates in eight US states and supplies electricity to 3.6 million customers, announced in December its plan to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2030, compared with 2005 levels, and to deliver 100% carbon-free electricity to its customers by 2050.

Last year it reduced its carbon emissions by 3% to about 38% below the level in 2005. The utility noted the US Energy Information Administration had reported that carbon emissions for the overall electric power sector increased 2% in 2018. Xcel said its lower emissions are the result of "continued high performance" from its nuclear power plants, reduced coal generation and an increase in generation from natural gas and some renewables.

"We are well positioned for the future and are focused on putting the right technology and policies in place to make our vision a reality," said Xcel Chairman, President and CEO Ben Fowke. "Our 2018 carbon results demonstrate the significant gains we're making in the transition to clean energy while still maintaining safe, reliable and affordable services for our customers."

Xcel yesterday announced the publication of a report outlining the path to achieving its carbon reductions, adding that nuclear generation plays a "vital role" in its carbon transition.

Its two nuclear power plants in Minnesota - Monticello and Prairie Island - account for 13% of Xcel's total electricity generation. Monticello's single 671 MWe boiling water reactor is licensed to operate until 2030, while Prairie Island's two 550 MWe pressurised water reactors are licenced to operate until 2033 and 2034, respectively.

Xcel said operating its nuclear plants for the remainder of their licences will be a "key element" in meeting its 2030 target, adding that policies at the state and federal levels are needed that "allow us to continue the cost-effective operation of these important assets at least through the end of their current operating licences".

"Beyond 2030, the company will need new carbon-free 24/7 technologies that are not yet commercially available at the cost and scale required," Xcel said. "To serve customers with 100% carbon-free electricity by 2050, the company is calling for more research, innovation and demonstration of advanced carbon-free technologies, such as power to gas, seasonal energy storage, advanced nuclear or small modular reactors, carbon capture and storage, deep rock geothermal or other technologies."

The new report also includes an in-depth analysis of Xcel's targets by climate scientists at the University of Denver. The climate modelling experts concluded the utility's emissions reduction trajectory under its carbon vision is consistent with electric sector emissions in scenarios likely to achieve the temperature goals of the Paris climate agreement.

"We look to our partners to help us drive the advancements in technology and constructive policy to make it happen," Xcel said. "While there may be differences of opinion around the details of how we get there, we are all in the same race together to reduce and eventually eliminate carbon. Reducing carbon emissions should be the ultimate and shared objective. We must remain focused on this outcome and the drivers that will get us there as efficiently and cost effectively as possible."

The company is expected this month to develop a final preferred Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) for Minnesota for the period 2020-2034, setting out the resources it will need to serve its customers over the next 15 years. The plan looks at existing power plants, potential new power plants, energy efficiency, customer energy user, and other aspects of the utility system.

Xcel said, this year provides a "unique opportunity" because the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) has required Xcel Energy to evaluate when all of its large coal and nuclear plants should be retired and whether early retirement is appropriate for any of the plants. The Utility is scheduled to file the IRP with the Minnesota PUC in July.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News