May 25, 2017

Wind energy's watershed moment

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Data: Energy Information Administration; Note: Only includes facilities with a nameplate capacity one megawatt and above; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon / Axios

Ben Fowke, the CEO of Xcel Energy, now says he's fine with wind power on the electric grid.

"I don't think 5 or 10 years ago I'd be comfortable telling you we could not sacrifice reliability when we're going to have 35% of our energy come from wind," Fowke said on stage at the American Wind Energy Association's annual conference in Anaheim. "I'm telling you, I'm very comfortable with that today."

Why it matters: Fowke's was responding to a question from Chris Brown, president of Vestas America, one of the biggest manufacturers of wind turbines in the U.S. Brown's questions appeared aimed at preemptively rebutting an Energy Department study examining the reliability of the U.S. electric grid in a way that the administration has presented as favoring fossil fuels and nuclear power over intermittent sources like wind and solar. The combo of Brown and Fowke on stage is one way the wind group is seeking to influence the Energy Department, which isn't officially seeking public comment before issuing the study summer.

One level deeper: Xcel Energy is one of the more forward-thinking power companies. I visited the company's trading room floor in Denver a few years ago, where I saw first-hand how company employees decide to constantly balance wind with natural gas, hydropower and other sources of electricity. It has a goal to achieve 35% wind in its mix by 2021, today it's 17%. Coal still dominates its mix at 37%, like most utility companies.

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