Xcel says that with competition in the wholesale electric market and federal actions driving transmission policies, utility-specific planning no longer works. Therefore, new approaches, such as state-wide energy planning, are needed to attract generation investment and strengthen the electric transmission grid.
Bill Grant of the Izaak Walton League says the proposal is interesting but premature. "State-wide planning is not a bad idea, but it presumes that other matters relating to public benefits would be resolved," Grant says. He fears, however, that by giving up utility-by-utility planning the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) could lose its ability to order a utility to invest in resources like wind.
In filing its 2000 resource plan with the Minnesota PUC, Xcel has not adequately outlined a contingency plan for shutting down its nuclear plants before the end of their lifetime -- bringing criticism from both Grant and Michael Noble of Minnesotans for an Energy Efficient Economy. The 1994 Prairie Island legislation allowed NSP to store nuclear waste in return for 425 MW of wind by 2001 and a further 400 MW by 2012. Nuclear waste storage space at Xcel's Prairie Island facility is in short supply, however, and the utility has been ordered to shut down the plant after 2007 if it cannot resolve the issue.
"If [Xcel] is going to take off-line 1200 megawatts, it's obvious that there is a huge opportunity for providers of wind, gas and other resources," Noble says. "Those kinds of resources don't happen overnight," he adds. "We expected that at least some portion of the resources would come from renewables," adds Grant. "And in this state wind is by far the cheapest and is even competitive with combined-cycle gas plants."
Jim Alders of Xcel says the company has indeed outlined the contingency plan of the nuclear plant shutting down. After meeting with the interest groups, he says, Xcel will add more text to the resource plan to more explicitly spell out that evaluation.
Up to 80 MW a year
Despite its reticence on nuclear planning, Xcel says it intends to meet much of its load growth of 100 to 150 MW per year through conservation and renewable resources, Noble points out. The utility will need as much as 700 MW of new capacity during the next seven or eight years and expects conservation and renewables to account for 50 to 80 MW a year. "Through their own modelling, they showed that this mix of resources could be least cost -- that there is no cost disadvantage for the renewables-conservation strategy," Noble says.
The Minnesota PUC will take about a year to review the plan. Meantime it is taking public comments.