Xcel Energy recently announced plans to reduce carbon emissions in its electricity generation by 80% from 2005 to 2030, and to zero by 2050. Perhaps Xcel will be able to meet its stated "carbon free" goals at a quicker rate by adopting an approach of siting distributed renewable energy generation at strategic points in the distribution grid that would allow them to sidestep having to build new High Voltage Transmission lines. It can be done matching up new distributed generation with to the capacity of each adjacent substation.
If Xcel Energy is inclined to develop renewable power resources in a way that requires the building new million dollar per mile High Voltage Transmission lines, we should be warned that it can get politically dicey to route them through communities and farms to the extent that it could delay the reaching of renewable goals.
In addition, customers would be saddled with perhaps avoidable costs for new high voltage transmission lines (while utility shareholders get guaranteed returns upon the projects).
In terms of Xcel's 15 Integrated Resource Plan, the above makes a good case for Xcel to do energy scenario modeling at the distribution level to find out what can be accomplished rather than limiting their modeling on the transmission level.
It would be very disingenuous if Xcel were to come out with a draft IRP that flat out denies the extent to which this likely lower cost approach is feasible if they did not even give it a fair look in their energy modeling.
Can we get assurance that Xcel Energy plans to do energy scenario modeling at the distribution level...or are questions about Xcel's Modeling software shrouded in lack of transparency and claims to trade secret?
The relevance for energy modeling is clear with close to 2/3 of Xcel's baseload power plants being scheduled for retirement in the next 15 years. The question of who will cover any stranded costs from the retirement of big baseload plants will get called eventually, alongside the technical questions on what to replace the generation with. So why not model the scenarios now at this time when Xcel is required to come up with a 15 year energy plan? Researchers independent of Xcel have done energy scenario modeling with encouraging conclusions.
OUTDATED MODELING SOFTWARE?
Without modeling at the distribution level, there is no way to integrate it into the overall "Integrated" Resource plan. If Xcel is able to skirt around having to modeling at the distribution level, then they can pretend that distributed renewable energy generation opportunities on the low voltage scale don’t exist. We miss our prime opportunity if they are able to get away with that and there is no reason they should.
A big concern is if Xcel’s modeling software can’t do anything beyond what it could back in 2008. In turn, that modeling software from 2008 was a tool that public entities made them create. The PUC gave a directive to Xcel to figure out how the grid could be different and modernized. It required them to put the modeling program together in 2007 / 2008 but Xcel probably has not done any updates to it since then.
Xcel refused to pursue make proper use of the tool because they figured that the outcome of using the tool would undercut the CAP X 2020 project they already wanted to do. Using an updated version of that advanced modeling software tool would open up a whole great opportunity for dispersed and distributed clean energy generation…the sort that is more difficult for Xcel to keep under their market share.
LACK OF TRANSPARENCY ABOUT XCEL’S MODELING
In general, people and organization who already have a lot of money get to do the modeling and control the parameters of what they model, while everyone else who does not have as much money has to beg in some way for access to the modeling. The utility monopoly owns the software and uses its monopolistic powers to turn that ownership into control as well. They have the power to use trade secrets and non-disclosure agreements to shut independent inquiries all down.
In order to get a utility’s modeling info, you often need to sign some sort of non-disclosure agreement. The models are shrouded in so much secrecy and this creates a lack of transparency in the process.
GRID LAB STUDY
In the Summer of 2018, Grid Lab and the McKnight foundation have released their “Minnesota Smarter Grid” study, showing that Minnesota could retire all of our coal plants, never build a new gas plant and still save people money by investing in clean energy.
With that study, the technocratic grasstops organizations that typically follow utility integrated resource plan process have been demonstrating a growing consensus of replacing out baseload with distributed renewable energy generation with more community ownership & control and no new gas plants.
While the McKnight Study/ Grid Lab study did model a lot, it did not consider an early retirement of the nuclear plants. There is in fact a “Power flow model” for replacing Xcel’s Prairie Island nuclear plant. The PUC can order Xcel to look into this or follow through with that scenario. The key to making it happen is the integrated transmission distribution network. You can’t do integrated resource planning when you do not have integrated systems modeling. If you have that in place then all these other things become possible.
A LIMITED SCOPE E3 STUDY
Given the availability of the Grid Lab / McKnight study, why did Xcel pursue doing a different study with E3? E3 only appeared to look at a rather limited duo of solutions that can both conveniently fall within Xcel's market share: #1 Mass electrification (such as switching out natural gas appliances for higher efficiency electric heat pumps) plus a biofuels switchover (which is Xcel has the potential to produce their own). When I asked the E3 researcher (at an Xcel Stakeholder meeting) about whether the plans involved biofuel crops whose roots sequester carbon and whether it would be a win-win for the climate that builds up soil, it turns out they did not consider net emissions only point source for biofuels.
Doing modeling at the distribution level was left out of the scope of E3, likely because the results of doing so would lead to solutions that do not fit as conveniently under Xcel's market share; a greater balance between customer owned and shareholder owned resources.