Dick Kelley, the President, CEO, and Chairman of the Board of Xcel Energy spoke to the board and invited guests of Western Resource Advocates last Friday. I was invited as a supporter of WRA.
His speech was widely reported in the press because he called for national regulation of greenhouse gas emissions. The AP story emphasized Kelly’s shift from being an environmental skeptic to calling for national Carbon emissions regulation. This is a big shift, and a giant step for a utility, but Kelly is not so much of an environmental advocate as he might sound.
I had a short conversation with him before dinner. After we introduced ourselves, I told him I’d been making his life harder recently at the Colorado PUC. Like anyone who’s been successful in business, he didn’t miss a beat, and told me that it was great, and the more people’s input we had, the better.
He said that Xcel had been opposed to Amendment 37 because of the cost of the solar set-aside, a position I’m actually sympathetic with. After all, is it better to have 1 MW of solar photovoltaics on people’s roofs, or 20 MW of Wind? When you look at the subsidies needed to get people to install PV (which is an Amendment 37 requirement), we could probably get 20x as much wind energy onto the grid for the same cost. It’s not that wind cost 1/20 as much as solar, but since the price of electricity from wind is comparable to the price of coal, it does not take much to get a lot of wind, while solar needs to be heavily subsidized.
What I really would have liked in A37 was an allocation for Demand Side Management (DSM) and energy efficiency. If the same incentives could have gotten us 20 MW of wind or 1 MW of solar, it could also have gotten us 40 MW of DSM and energy efficiency. (none of these numbers are precise… it’s hard to tell what an incentive will accomplish until it is implemented, but we do know that DSM is cheaper than wind is cheaper than solar.) But energy efficiency was not on the table when A37 was being written… polling data said that adding “energy efficiency” to the bill dropped popular support by so much that we couldn’t have gotten it passed.
Dick Kelley also told me that Comanche 3 (a new 750 MW coal plant) would be the last conventional coal plant that Xcel would build. I told him Comanche 3 would be fine with me, if they’d just shut down Comanche 1 and 2 (a couple old, less efficient plants at the same site.) That was an option that’s clearly off the table, but he did say Xcel needed to find a way to clean up the emissions of those plants. I suggested wood chips, like Aquila is doing at their Clark Generating Station in Canon City. By co-firing wood and pine needles from necessary forest thinning, Aquila is able to reduce net CO2 emissions, as wel as NOx, SOx, and Mercury.
I mentioned the option of hybridizing concentrating solar thermal power (CSP) with existing coal plants. He didn’t really understand the concept, and thought I was talking about photovoltaics. I’m not sure I was able to explain myself well. Put simply, when heat is available from the sun, it can be used to displace heat from coal (or natural gas) in an existing generator.
Kelly also said he’d like to raise wind to 20-25% of generation, but after that they’d have to see what the effect on reliability of the grid would be. I brought up the idea of Pumped hydro or CAES. He didn’t seem familiar with the fact that Colorado’s Big Thompson Project could be adapted for pumped hydro fairly easily. As he said, new big hydro is not going to happen. Which is all the more reason for adapting out existing reservoirs for energy storage with pumped hydro.
I was encouraged that he has recognized that Carbon Emissions are a massive problem, and that the utilites, who are the biggest emitters of carbon, are going to have a big part in the solution, but discouraged that he knew so little about several pieces of the solution that have great potential to be quickly viable.
Xcel likes wind, but is not looking at new ways to increase how much they can put on their system… they’ll just go to 20-25% and see what happens. They’re pursuing IGCC (Internal Gasification Combined Cycle a.ka. “Clean Coal”) with carbon sequestration in a pilot plant, which many environmentalists feel is just a distraction from renewable energy, pointing out that no one has ever done any sort of sequestration on a large scale. To me, that is an argument for IGCC with Carbon Sequestration, on a small scale: let’s give it a try and see if we can make it work or not.
IGCC is a lot better than one of the other ideas that Kelly brought up in his speech: he thinks that part of the solution will be nuclear power. Nuclear power is indeed carbon neutral, but it requires diminishing uranium supplies, or the use of breeder reactors which make plutonium, an element which is not only extrememly toxic, but also an excellent material for making nuclear bombs. We still haven’t figured out what we’re going to do with the waste from our existing reactors… until we do that, I think it’s crazy to look into building more. And considering the real threat of terrorism, a nuclear reactor or wastepile makes a much better target than a solar array or wind farm.
When it comes to Kelly’s call for national regulation of carbon emissions, it’s a great step in the right direction, but it was a far cry from calling for a carbon tax (which economists think would be the most effective method of carbon regulation.) Kelly knows global warming is real, and he knows that our politicians are going to do something about it. By calling for national mandatory regualtion (but not a tax) he’s trying to shape the debate to come out in a way that Xcel will find easier to deal with.
With a little more education about alternatives such as CSP, and ways to make the grid able to accept more intermentent resources (Time of use pricing, DSM, and energy storage), he may come to realize that Xcel has lots of ways to live in a carbon taxed or carbon limited world. And he seems willing to listen; so if you get his ear for five minutes, try to make the most of it.