Xcel aims to double renewables, retire coal plants early in state-required ‘clean energy plan’

Utility plans to cut emissions from electricity generation 85% by 2030

The 60-megawatt 220,000-panel Palmer Solar array, shown here in a Jan. 26, 2020, photo, is located south of Colorado Springs. It has the ability to power about 22,000 homes annually. (Mike Sweeney/Special to Colorado Newsline)

Ahead of a key regulatory proceeding next month, Colorado’s largest utility on Wednesday announced plans to achieve an 85% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation by 2030.

Xcel Energy’s first Clean Energy Plan, a new type of filing required by Colorado’s 2019 climate-change legislation, aims to double the utility’s renewable energy and battery storage capacity within the state. Its 85% emissions-reduction goal is a step up from the 80% cut the utility targeted in a groundbreaking decarbonization announcement in 2018.

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“This ambitious agenda delivers clean, reliable, affordable energy for our Colorado customers and communities and brings us closer to our vision of delivering 100% carbon-free electricity to customers by 2050,” Alice Jackson, president of Xcel Energy Colorado, said in a statement.

Xcel’s proposal will undergo an extensive review process when it submits its next electric resource plan, or ERP, to the Colorado Public Utilities Commission in March. Senate Bill 19-236, legislation enacted by Colorado lawmakers two years ago, required utilities like Xcel to submit clean energy plans as part of the ERP process beginning last year.

The electricity sector, which accounts for roughly a quarter of Colorado’s overall greenhouse gas emissions, is at the forefront of the state’s efforts to cut climate-warming carbon pollution. A roadmap released earlier this year by Gov. Jared Polis’ administration targets an 80% sector-wide emissions reduction by 2030, making up the majority of the roughly 63 million tons of cuts another 2019 law requires the state to achieve by that year.

“Colorado is getting cleaner air, more good jobs and savings for consumers with more renewable energy,” Polis said in a statement on Xcel’s announcement. “This proposal puts reliability and consumer savings as top priorities.”

Xcel’s plan calls for roughly 5,500 megawatts of new wind and solar generation and battery storage to power Colorado’s electric grid. With the cost of such clean-energy technologies continuing to decline, the utility says it will be able to add the new resources while keeping rate increases “at or below the rate of inflation.”

The new clean-energy capacity will enable Xcel to shutter some of its last remaining coal plants ahead of schedule. In addition to previously announced retirement dates, Xcel says it will move up the closure of Unit 2 at Hayden Generating Station on the Western Slope from 2036 to 2027, while Morgan County’s Pawnee Generating Station will convert to natural gas in 2028 before being retired as scheduled in 2041. Colorado’s largest and newest coal-fired generating unit, the 750-megawatt Unit 3 at Comanche Generating Station near Pueblo, would continue to operate until 2040 under Xcel’s plan.

That’s much sooner than Comanche Unit 3’s previously planned retirement date of 2070, and would give the plant, which began operations in 2010, a relatively brief 30-year lifespan — but for some environmental activists, who’ve called for an end to coal-fired electricity by the end of this decade, it’s still not aggressive enough.

“Xcel has done a great job marketing itself as a climate leader without actually being one,” Anna McDevitt, an advocate with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, said in a statement. “While it’s great Xcel is investing in more clean energy and striving to hit carbon reduction targets, Xcel remains the only Colorado utility with plans to burn coal past 2030, not to mention its new plan to burn fracked gas at the Pawnee Station.”

Other environmental groups said they’re looking forward to scrutinizing Xcel’s proposal as the company prepares to submit its full ERP to state utilities regulators next month.

“We need to be doing everything we possibly can to move toward 100% clean, renewable energy to reach our climate targets and protect our air, climate, and future generations,” Conservation Colorado executive director Kelly Nordini said in a statement. “We’re excited to dig into Xcel’s plan to ensure that their leadership maximizes pollution reductions and supports the needs of the workers and communities most impacted by their plan.”

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