In an unprecedented move, Xcel Energy—Colorado’s largest utility provider—announced Tuesday that it is aiming to reduce carbon emissions 80 percent by 2030 and to cut carbon emissions completely by 2050. The ambitious plan marks the first of its kind in the energy industry, and comes at a time when Colorado is emerging as one of the most sustainable states in the West.

The announcement, which was made at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, does not mark a commitment to 100 percent renewable energy generation, according to company officials, but instead is a pledge by the company to deliver carbon-free electricity to all customers across the eight states it serves within the next several decades. The years-in-the-making announcement comes about three months after state regulators approved Xcel’s Colorado Energy Plan, with which the company plans to increase the amount of power it sources from wind and solar and retire a third of its coal plants within the next decade.

According to Alice Jackson, president of Xcel Energy Colorado, Tuesday’s announcement comes in response to a call from customers for more sustainable energy. “We listen very closely to what our communities and customers are asking for,” Jackson says. “They’re clearly asking for reliable, low-cost, zero-carbon energy. We have our eye on that bar and we’re going to see what we can do.” 

Jackson says the company is confident that existing technology—including wind and solar infrastructure, energy storage, and some nuclear facilities in Minnesota—is enough to reduce carbon emissions 80 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels. In fact, Jackson says in 2017, Xcel had already reduced carbon emissions 35 percent compared to 2005 levels, and she expects that they’ll hit the 60 percent mark by 2026.

However, if the 2050 goal is going to be achieved, energy technology will need to advance. “We have a path through 2030 that we feel comfortable with,”  Jackson says. Between 2030 and 2050, however, advances in wind forecasting, hydro-power, lithium-ion battery storage, and small nuclear reactors will be necessary in order to close the gap and deliver carbon-free energy to all customers.  It’s also possible, Jackson says, “There could be something we don’t know about yet that will advance our ability to achieve that goal by 2050.” 

It’s notable that the utility provider—which is headquartered in Minneapolis and also serves customers in Michigan, Wisconsin, North and South Dakota, New Mexico, and Texas—selected Denver for this historic announcement. When asked why the company chose the Mile High City, Jackson noted that Minnesota and Colorado are the company’s two largest jurisdictions, so it was natural to hold the event in one of those states. She also mentioned that the Colorado Energy Plan was a “big win” this year, coupled with the fact that Coloradans are eager for more sustainable energy. “In Colorado, we have a lot going on in terms of environmental awareness,” she says. “Not that it’s any less or different in Minnesota, but this was, I think, the right place and the right time for us to be making the announcement.”

According to Erin Overturf, deputy director of the clean energy program at Boulder-based Western Resource Advocates, Xcel probably chose Colorado because “there are certain things we have done here that have been foundational to their ability to make an announcement like this.” Overturf points to work in Colorado dating back to 2004, when voters passed the Renewable Energy Standard, which was the nation’s first voter-led initiative to increase renewable energy generation and allowed Xcel to be on the cutting edge of research in this area. “Xcel is the first utility in the country to voluntarily step forward and say, ‘We’re going to be zero carbon by 2050, and we recognize our responsibility and obligation to reduce our emissions,'” Overturf says. “It puts the pressure on other large electric utility companies.”

“Full-scale carbon reduction won’t be possible unless utility providers like Xcel are on board,” she adds. 

Beyond the Colorado Energy Plan, politicians at both the state and local level have recently made significant promises to increase sustainability in the Centennial State. In July 2017, Gov. John Hickenlooper committed Colorado to the U.S. Climate Alliance, a coalition of states that pledged to uphold the tenets of the Paris Climate Accord, from which President Donald Trump withdrew the United States. And in July 2018, Mayor Michael Hancock released Denver’s 80×50 Climate Action Plan, which sets an aggressive goal for the city: 100 percent renewable electricity in municipal facilities by 2025 and community-wide by 2030.

Xcel’s announcement comes less than a month after Democrats won sweeping victories in Colorado’s midterm elections—a campaign season in which Governor-elect Jared Polis made a daring pledge that Colorado would run on 100 percent renewable energy by 2040. Polis, who is busy preparing for his inauguration next month, attended Xcel’s announcement on Tuesday and delivered remarks. He was not available for an interview as of press time, but told yesterday’s crowd that this announcement shows Colorado is “leading the way forward” on sustainable energy. 

When asked whether Xcel’s announcement was motivated by progressive victories in the Colorado midterms, Jackson noted that such goals transcend the temporal nature of partisan politics.  “We’re a business that has operated for over 100 years and will be here operating for more than another 100 years,” she says. “We recognize fully that, yes, the politics might be as they are today, but it doesn’t mean that they’re going to be that way next year or even five years from now. We don’t make decisions based on the exact political environment at one point in time.”

While Xcel’s ambitious new goal may not be riding on a specific political tide, come 2019 the company will be working with Colorado’s progressive governor and state legislature, and supported by a broad coalition of Colorado-based environmental organizations. How the big plan unfolds, of course, remains to be seen. There may be “disagreements or squabbles” about how things develop in the years to come, Overturf says. “But knowing that we share these common principles is incredibly important.” 

Jay Bouchard
Jay Bouchard
Jay Bouchard is a Denver-based writer and a former editor on 5280's digital team.