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How Swapping Coal for Renewables Equals Nuclear Energy

xcel-energyElectricity diversity is a defining value for utilities that maintain a reliable, stable supply. This is helpful in foul weather and in other situations, of course, but it’s also allows a utility to respond to new priorities.

That’s what Xcel is doing in Minnesota (via the Rochester (Minn.) Post-Bulletin):

Xcel Energy on Friday filed plans with state regulators that would shut down part of the state's largest coal-fired power plant.

Why?

Sherco's two older units would retire in 2023 and 2026 as part of the plan, which also calls for 1,200 megawatts of renewable energy, including a new 50 megawatt solar installation at the site of the Sherco plant in Becker.

Sherco is short for Sherburne County Generating Station. It has three coal units and Xcel intends to build a new natural gas facility there. 

And nuclear energy?

While two of Sherco's three coal units will retire, Xcel plans to keep running its two nuclear plants at Monticello and Prairie Island through 2030.

Obviously, the Clean Power Plan is the motivation behind all of this – I’d add the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, which isn’t mentioned, but has impacted a lot of coal facilities - but Xcel is also ensuring that it has sufficient baseload power to cover the intermittency of wind and solar energy.

If a utility has a full deck of energy sources, it has the flexibility to answer to society’s current needs without causing undue stress on the electricity grid. In the current instance, Xcel has explicitly mentioned that it will keep its nuclear plants open. That makes sense, because nuclear energy is CO2 emission free and thus fits Xcel’s goal of reducing its carbon emissions 60 percent by 2030.

We weren’t expecting a case study on the value of energy diversity this soon – and it’s not by a longshot the only value demonstrated in Xcel’s announcement - but there you go. I wonder if Xcel’s announcement will make other utilities think: can building a nuclear facility increase my options while reducing emissions? Short answer: Yes, yes it can.

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