• 36°

Nuclear power is here to stay in Minnesota

By Mike Hughlett

Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

The news has been increasingly bleak for U.S. nuclear power, replete with failed projects and proposed bailouts of unprofitable reactors.

In Minnesota, though, nuclear power is still a bedrock of the state’s electricity production, and it looks like it will stay that way until the 2030s.

For Xcel Energy, nuclear energy is critical to meeting its carbon reduction goals, particularly as it slowly jettisons its greenhouse-gas belching coal generators.

“Nuclear plays a huge role,” said Ben Fowke, CEO of Minneapolis-based Xcel, which owns the state’s three atomic power generators. “It will also increasingly play a major part in providing grid quality, which supports reliability.”

In other words, as Xcel in the 2020s moves from coal to wind and solar — which are inherently intermittent sources of electricity — nuclear will be a key source of “baseload,” or constant power.

“What we are advocating for is to run the [nuclear] plants to the end of their license life,” Fowke said. “We are not advocating for an early shutdown, and we are not advocating for life after 60 at this point.”

Xcel’s three Minnesota nuclear reactors would be 60 years old when their federal licenses expire between 2030 and 2034.

The reactors, one in Monticello and a pair at Prairie Island near Red Wing, have long been regional economic anchors. In Monticello, Xcel employs 450 people; at Red Wing, 600. By contrast, Xcel’s largest coal plants employ 90 to 160 people, and gas and renewable energy generators need even fewer workers.

Xcel is Minnesota’s only nuclear power producer, and Prairie Island and Monticello generate 30 percent of the company’s electricity in the Upper Midwest. Coal constitutes 29 percent of Xcel’s generation mix; wind and other renewables, 25 percent; and natural gas, 16 percent.

Including nuclear power, 55 percent of Xcel’s current power generation is carbon-free. The company wants to hit 85 percent by 2030. Xcel already plans to close two big coal-fired generators in Becker by 2026. Look for further coal power reductions from Xcel in Minnesota before any exit from nuclear power.