Xcel CEO surprised by wind’s market power

Source: Daniel Cusick, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, May 26, 2017

As head of the nation’s No. 1 utility provider of wind energy, Xcel Energy Inc.’s Ben Fowke is practiced at selling the virtues of wind power to customers and policymakers alike.

But in an admission yesterday to industry officials gathered in Anaheim, Calif., Fowke said he didn’t always believe that wind power could meet more than a third of his company’s power portfolio, as it is projected to do by 2021.

“Ten years ago, I would never have been comfortable with the amount of wind we have on our system today,” Fowke said at a session at Windpower 2017, the national conference of the American Wind Energy Association.

But, he added, Minneapolis-based Xcel is proving that wind power can meet the environmental goals of governments, businesses and consumers while also supplying cost-effective baseload energy to drive a complex U.S. economy.

“We call it our steel-for-fuel strategy,” Fowke said of the company’s recent decisions to replace older coal-fired units across its eight-state region and with purchases of new wind energy. “I believe the fuel of tomorrow is on sale today, and we’re buying.”

In March, Xcel announced its largest wind energy expansion to date with 11 new wind farms planned in seven states. Those wind farms will add nearly 3,400 megawatts of new capacity to Xcel’s regional grids in the Upper Midwest, Colorado and the Southwest.

Roughly 80 percent of that new wind capacity will be owned by Xcel, reflecting the utility’s confidence in the long-term viability of wind power, and Fowke said the costs of building the new wind farms will be offset by billions of dollars in savings to ratepayers, officials said.

Xcel’s confidence in wind energy underscores a major theme for the renewable energy sector in 2017. While riding a sustained four-year growth trajectory, U.S. wind power is facing political blowback from the fossil fuel industry and its advocates who argue that the national surge in wind power is compromising grid reliability.

The Trump administration has further stoked such fears. Energy Secretary Rick Perry last month ordered a 60-day study of whether intermittent energy resources like wind and solar are driving baseload coal and nuclear plants out of service, a claim renewable energy advocates rebut.

In a Tuesday address, AWEA CEO Tom Kiernan said wind power’s growth and public support are attributable to three things: driving down the cost of delivered power through innovation and efficiency gains; delivering ever larger amounts of reliable power to the grid; and stimulating the broader U.S. economy through new investment and jobs.

“Wind power has grown to be America’s largest source of renewable capacity because we’ve delivered on our promises,” Kiernan said. “We’re not just here to stay, we’re here to grow and grow and grow.”