Xcel's wind purchases are also alleviating the ever-more-frequent transportation bottlenecks increasingly associated in the United States with all fossil fuels. In early February on a particularly frigid Colorado morning, the company was unable to buy enough natural gas, was short 400 megawatts, and had to go to rolling blackouts for some customers. With enough wind on the system, the natural gas plants could have been backed off and that disaster would likely not have occurred. "There is intermittency in wind, but it still has a place in our generation portfolio," Grant said.
Control room operators at Xcel, innately averse to risk, were not initially enthusiastic about wind, he added, but once they became familiar with the technology and learned to work with it, some of the opposition has died down. "It's a slow process. We're on board with it and they're learning to operate with it, but there's been some choice words," he said, raising an appreciative laugh.
Although Xcel did not willingly enter the wind power business -- a Minnesota state requirement and a Colorado voter mandate kicked off its entry into the field -- the company is now so bullish on wind that it intends to vastly exceed its regulated mandates. "We're shooting for fifteen percent," says Grant.
Grant stresses that the company's current enthusiasm for wind is not based on environmental issues, but is a pure business decision. "We're strictly treating wind an as economic alternative," he says.
As for the difficulties of making wind fit into a system with a heavy investment in coal-fired generation, the company has been surprised, he says. Of Xcel's 15,295 MW of generation across the Midwest and West of the US, more than half -- 8092 MW -- comes from coal. Nevertheless, although natural gas plants are the facilities that are usually backed down to make way for wind, the company has gradually found ways to get around the problem of the old slow-to-ramp-up and slow-to-respond coal plants, he says.
Wind is not without its problems for a huge utility, says Grant, but staff were forced to learn how to cope, and now they are glad they were. "The more you're forced to do it, the faster that you learn how to do it," he says. Xcel might eventually even go higher than 15% if the technology continues to improve.