First Major U.S. Utility Commits to 100% Clean Energy

By Traver Kennedy, Chairman and CEO on January 29, 2019
Traver Kennedy
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A Game-Changing Move

A few weeks ago, the utility industry surprised the world with game-changing news. As reported by Vox, for the first time, a major U.S. utility has committed to 100% clean energy. This commitment is a true testament to decades of technological progress and market adoption of sustainable energies. It is also evidence of strong consumer demand for clean power sources, stimulated by a new global conscience and the fact that, as we wrote last week, the cost to install and produce clean energy is now lower than major sources of electricity that dominated the last century, such as coal.

For the first time, we can envision a day when using fossil fuels to produce the electricity that cities around the world need to thrive will be seen as an outdated, expensive, and imprudent way to power society. This transformed world of energy, which is already beginning to materialize, will see utilities using a clean mix of power sources to produce electricity that varies by their local realities and resources. From wind and solar to hydrogen and hydroelectric, the electricity of the future will not be dominated by one single source. Nor will it be the result of expensive tradeoffs between the health of citizens and the planet with economic considerations.

Clean and cheap electricity: Coming soon through the cables that feed your city’s grid.

Going Viral

As reported by Vox, Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy, “one of the biggest utilities in the U.S., committed to going completely carbon-free by 2050 (and 80 percent carbon-free by 2030).” Vox referred to the announcement as “another sign that carbon-free energy is going viral,” and gave the following arguments for this major shift―of which Xcel Energy is only the tip of the iceberg:

  • Renewables are getting cheap compared to other sources, including natural gas;
  • Consumers are demanding clean energy;
  • The political landscape in the eight states where they operate has shifted: politicians are listening to the sustainability mindset of their constituents and are doing something about it; and
  • They want to shift to investments and technologies that give them better margins.

Xcel Energy’s public remarks on the news stated the following:

“The company believes that its 2030 goal can be achieved affordably with renewable energy and other technologies currently available. However, achieving the long-term vision of zero-carbon electricity requires technologies that are not cost effective or commercially available today. That is why Xcel Energy is committed to ongoing work to develop advanced technologies while putting the necessary policies in place to achieve this transition.”

Vox also notes in their article that when it comes to carbon emissions, cities, who account for 80% of the world’s CO2 emissions, make the difference―more than any actions by the federal government. As they put it, “Cities can move utilities, and utilities can move the energy industry.”

The People Know

Unlike the energy transitions of the past century, this time around citizens know the basic economics of the power choices available to their utility companies. They also know the effects that these choices have on their health and that of the environment. For example, just a few weeks ago, The New York Times published an interesting interactive graphic that educates the public on energy choices in their state. This valuable educational tool enables citizens to benchmark how their state generated electricity from 2001 through 2017 compared to other states.

It is not hard to see the dramatic regional differences by using such a tool. For instance, in a few clicks, consumers can visually see that 94% of the electricity currently used in North Carolina comes from carbon-emitting coal―down only 4% from 2001. They can also compare their state’s coal consumption to the national average of 30%. This interactive tool helps to visualize how natural gas, hydroelectric, and nuclear energy production―alongside coal―dominated in the early 2000s. It also shows how renewables, such as wind and solar, came from almost nothing to become a sizeable share of the electricity produced in many states during the same timeframe, following a trend that indicates their economic advantage will only get bigger.

Follow the Money

It doesn’t take an energy expert to conclude that utilities follow the money when it comes to choosing how to produce the electricity needed by cities (which account for 75% of the world’s electricity consumption). This past year saw the inflection point reached when the economics of investing in renewables capacity and producing them surpassed that of installing and producing fossil fuels such as coal. As wind and solar gain even better economics when other energy sources that can make up for their inevitable variability, such as Hydrogen 2.0 come online, the era of no-compromise energy will propel us to a cleaner and more affordable future.


Photo under license from Shutterstock.
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