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Turning from coal means more demand for nuclear and alternative energy sources

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Prairie Island nuclear plant
The Prairie Island nuclear power plant near Red Wing in southeastern Minnesota. Xcel energy is considering expanding the plant and the nuclear generating plant at Monticello.
MPR file photo/Erin Galbally

Every two years electric companies file plans with the state, showing how they intend to meet the ever-increasing demand for electricity in Minnesota.

The Next Generation Energy Act of 2007 is forcing a second look at those plans. The law requires Minnesota to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050.

For Xcel Energy, the biggest electricity supplier in the state, that means no more coal-fired power plants, given the limitations of existing technology, according to Beth Engelking, manager of resource planning and bidding for Xcel.

"Three years ago in our resource plans in Minnesota and Colorado, we both contemplated constructing new coal plants.  We now have a CEO who says that we will not construct a coal plant that doesn't capture and sequester carbon," Engelking says.  

Xcel is already on track to reduce carbon emissions, Engelking says.  The company is converting two plants in the Twin Cities to natural gas, and works with customers to reduce demand by operating more efficiently.

Wind machine
Xcel may need nearly three times as much wind power as previously planned.
MPR photo/Mark Steil

But she says Xcel also plans to boost production at its nuclear plants in Monticello and Prairie Island.  That  means more fuel storage at Prairie Island, an issue that's bound to generate resistance.  But concern about climate change is prompting some legislators to view nuclear power more favorably, Engelking says.  

"As a company right now, we're not looking at new nuclear plants. But we do expect that our policymakers are going to take the carbon factor into account when they consider whether or not to extend the lives of our current plants," she says. 

Many environmentalists in Minnesota continue to oppose expansion of nuclear plants in the state.  J. Drake Hamilton with St.Paul-based Fresh Energy is one of them.  

"There will be additional nuclear waste storage needs, it's highly toxic, and we haven't seen any information to suggest that it will ever leave Minnesota. So we will have to isolate that from the biosphere for many thousands of years," Hamilton says.  

The state's new goal of reducing 1.5 percent of its electricity use every year should level out the need for new power plants, Hamilton says.

Not so, says Jon Brekke, vice president for member services for Great River Energy, the second largest utility in Minnesota.  He says in 20 years, Great River will likely look for a partner to build a new nuclear plant.   

"Homeowners are putting new loads in their homes all the time. They're buying new computers, new televisions, they're putting in a second refrigerator," says Brekke. "Those things are all adding to the sales (of electricity); meanwhile we've got efficiency that's reducing the sales.  There's no great way to measure how much of the sales increase is caused by new loads in homes versus how much savings is by putting in CFLs."

CFLs are compact fluorescent lights.  Great River Energy is asking its customers to switch five regular light bulbs to CFLs.  That could save 6.5 percent of the energy demand from its residential customers.  It will take years to achieve that goal, Brekke says.  

Besides conservation and carbon emission reduction goals, Minnesota is now requiring its utilities to use renewable sources for 25 percent of their electricity by 2025.  

For Xcel, that means nearly three times as much wind power as previously planned.  Since wind is intermittent, the company will need plants that can fill in to meet peak demand.  And the company will probably turn to natural gas plants for that power.  

Building renewable sources of energy has taken on added urgency as recent research indicates climate change is happening faster than many scientists had predicted as recently as five years ago.