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Hydrogen power, modular nuclear and the other technology Xcel Energy has its eyes on

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Xcel Energy President Chris Clark speaks.
Xcel Energy President Chris Clark speaks during a press conference at the North Star Solar facility outside of North Branch, Minn. in October 2016.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2016

Xcel Energy says it should have no problem reaching its goal to cut carbon by 80 percent by 2030. It’s that last 20 percent that will require some still-nascent technology, Xcel CEO Ben Fowke told MPR chief meteorologist Paul Huttner in this week’s Climate Cast.

“If we start to nurture these kinds of technology, I think they’ll be there when we need it by 2050,” he said.

One technology Fowke is keeping his eye on is modular nuclear reactors. He said they would bring the same carbon-free power existing nuclear power plants do, but without some of the problems.

“They’re smaller, so they’re not these massively big power plants that cost billions and billions of dollars,” Fowke said. “And the reason they’re called modular is because they’re developed in the factory and not designed on the fly, as the history of what our nuclear industry has been.”

“So, the promise is [they’ll be] much more predictable; they have passive safety systems, which means they automatically shut down without the need for cooling, in the event they need to be shut down; and they’re better at integrating renewable energy, so they move up and down with load better than the existing technology,” he said.

Fowke also said he’s excited about the potential of hydrogen power.

“I would have laughed 10 years ago if I thought we could move to a hydrogen economy,” he said.

Through a process called electrolysis, Fowke said, utilities can use renewable energy to extract hydrogen from water. That hydrogen is then able to be stored, which means developing batteries that can store renewable energy long term becomes less of an imperative. 

Xcel’s plan has been celebrated, but also critiqued because it requires the utility to rely more heavily on legacy natural gas and nuclear power plants to offset the closure of its coal plants. Much of the country’s natural gas now comes from fracking, which takes a heavy toll on the environment. Natural gas also emits methane, a more powerful greenhouse gas emission.

Fowke said Xcel and other utilities recognize the downsides of natural gas and are pressuring the natural gas industry to be as sustainable as possible.

“Our industry, the electric utility industry, is going to make a push to say, if you want us to use your product, you gotta help us make it worthwhile to use,” he said.

To hear the full conversation, including the role wind and solar will play, hit play on the audio player above.