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Xcel CEO predicts rosy future as energy moves away from coal

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Coal plants like this are on their way out at Xcel and elsewhere.
Coal plants like this are on their way out at Xcel and elsewhere.
Matt Sepic | MPR News file

By the year 2020, Xcel Energy's power grid will use 35 percent renewable sources, and less than a quarter of energy will come from coal.

It will have slashed carbon emissions by nearly half, and customers won't see much of a change in their bills — if not a lower bill.

That's according to the utility's CEO Ben Fowke, who spoke with MPR News host Tom Weber on Friday.

But how will Minnesota's largest utility get to this point?

Increased use of renewable energy, and the highly controversial method of extracting natural gas from the earth known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. 

Fowke said fracking "truly has been a game-changer" for Xcel. Fracking involves shooting highly pressurized liquid into rock beneath the earth's surface, cracking the rock and releasing natural gas. 

Fracking can contaminate water, expose people nearby to harmful substances and even cause earthquakes.

For utilities, though, it also brings inexpensive power. Natural gas costs used to be between $8 and $10 per unit, Fowke said. Now, it's between $2 and $3 a unit.

While Xcel is pushing toward renewables, Fowke said, fossil fuels like natural gas and coal are necessary for the utility to keep its power grid reliable.

And as natural gas and renewable energy — especially wind — become more economical, coal is getting phased out.

That's happening in Minnesota now as Xcel phases out the Sherco coal plant in Becker.

"It's not really a matter of if coal plants are gonna retire," Fowke said, "it's a matter of when."

Use the audio player above to hear Weber's full interview with Fowke, plus some listener calls.

Editor's note (Nov. 17, 2017): An earlier headline on this story was unclear about the nature of Xcel's energy future. The headline has been updated to clarify.