WELCH - Xcel Energy aims to grow the share of carbon-free energy in its overall generating mix in the next decade, and Prairie Island nuclear plant will continue to play a key role for years to come.

Executives outlined the utility company's clean-energy vision Tuesday, Oct. 2, as part of an annual Red Wing community meeting with local government and business representatives held at Treasure Island Resort & Casino. The talk also included updates on a refuelling outage underway on Prairie Island nuclear plant's Unit 1 reactor and the prospects of moving spent nuclear fuel to an interim storage facility out west.

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Nuclear energy accounts for a third of Xcel Energy's upper Midwest energy mix, and roughly half of its carbon-free energy generation. The company plans for its Prairie Island and Monticello nuclear plants to continue to provide at least a quarter of its generating mix through 2030 as renewable energy replaces coal and natural gas plants. The goal is to reach 85 percent carbon-free energy generation by 2030.

"It's an exciting time to be in our industry as we see this shift in resources," said Chris Clark, president of Xcel Energy in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.

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The lion's share of carbon-free energy generation will come from wind power. The company said it expects to produce enough wind energy by 2021 to power every home in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The utility is adding more than 1,800 megawatts of wind energy to its system. Clark said added turbines in Minnesota, Iowa and the Dakotas will bump renewable energy to nearly 50 percent of Xcel Energy's upper Midwest generating mix over the next few years, with the goal of reaching 60 percent of energy generation from renewables by 2030.

The added wind energy will coincide with the closing of the Sherco coal plants in central Minnesota and Allen S. King coal plant near Stillwater over the next 20 years. Meanwhile the operating licenses for Xcel Energy's nuclear plants will expire in 2030 for the Monticello plant and in 2033-2034 for Prairie Island.

Spent nuclear fuel

At issue with the continued operation of nuclear power plants is what to do with the country's spent nuclear fuel. Ongoing delays by the federal government to open a permanent repository in the Nevada desert has left radioactive waste building up for years in temporary storage casks at the Prairie Island nuclear plant and others.

The repository plan has seen renewed interest by President Donald Trump and in U.S. Congress, including the possibility of interim storage facilities in Texas and New Mexico.

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Xcel Energy will take an active role in helping shape nuclear regulatory policy, particularly in regard to advancing the relocation of spent fuel, Xcel Energy Chief Nuclear Officer Tim O'Connor said. He said he hopes to see relocation begin in as soon as three or four years.

"That's different than maybe I would have said a couple years ago because of the current bipartisan support that appears to be in Washington at this point in time," O'Connor said.

Prairie Island nuclear plant will be part of a tabletop exercise to research the logistics of transporting spent nuclear fuel, he added

Goodhue County Commissioner Ron Allen said he would like to see the Prairie Island nuclear plant operating licenses extended beyond 2033-2034 if a fuel storage solution is reached, acknowledging the plant's impact to the local economy.

The nuclear plant employs 735 people and up to 1,000 more during refueling outages, according to Xcel Energy.

Refueling outage

Prairie Island nuclear plant's Unit 1 reactor is undergoing a maintenance and refueling outage that began Sept. 21. The work includes replacing the original generator from the 1970s with a 505-ton generator fabricated in Japan.

Site Vice-President Scott Sharp said the Unit 1 reactor had been in continuous operation for 476 days prior to the refueling outage. Unit 2 has been operating around the clock for 315 days since a refueling outage last year.

The two reactors generate a combined 1,100 megawatts of energy, enough to power 180 million cell phones, he said.