Xcel: The market is leaving carbon behind

Carbon free by 2050.

That’s the ambitious, if obviously long-term, goal announced earlier this month by Xcel Energy, which is based in Minneapolis and has electric generation operations in and around Mankato.

2050 is a long time from now; the Xcel leaders who set that goal won’t be running the corporation by then. They may not be running the show in 2030, when the goal is to have cut carbon emissions by 80 percent from 2005 levels. So we can take this goal with a grain of salt.

But the intent is serious, and the reasoning real. Xcel, which has 3.6 million electric customers in eight states, is the first major electric utility to set a no-emissions goal. It won’t be the last.

This is the future of American electricity. The Trump administration, unfortunately, remains handcuffed to the past. Around the time Xcel set its no-carbon pledge, the Environmental Protection Agency continued to make a mockery of its name and mission by announcing plans to roll back Obama-era restrictions on emissions from new coal-burning plants.

The silver lining to that soot-laden cloud: Nobody’s building coal burners anymore, and removing emission restrictions isn’t going to change that. Coal is more expensive a fuel than natural gas, and even utilities that haven’t moved as aggressively as Xcel has into wind and solar power are shuttering coal burners and shifting to the cleaner-burning fuel. It’s not the regulations, it’s the market.

Even so, getting from here to where Xcel wants to be some 30 years from now won’t be simple. Xcel says the necessary technology is not now commercially viable. Getting to zero, the utility says, will require both keeping its two nuclear generators in Minnesota (at Red Wing and Monticello) online longer than previously planned and a means of capturing carbon before it is emitted.

Not simple, not immediate — but it’s a worthy goal and it’s realistic. Xcel, and the broader electrical industry, is looking to the future. Let us hope it comes quickly enough to make a difference in our looming climate disaster.

— The Free Press of Mankato