Spontaneous applause interrupted the opening of Xcel Energy's annual community breakfast as officials announced a major shift in electrical production.

"In 30 months, when we finish our next wind expansion, more than two-thirds of all the energy on our system will be generated by carbon-free resources," said Regional Vice President Greg Chamberlain, who had to stop speaking and ended up joining in the applause.

The regional vice president of external and community affairs then continued, "And that plant across the street, along with wind and hydro and solar, make up that two-thirds. It's really an amazing transformation of our fleet."

In addition to the traditional updates on Xcel's Red Wing facilities - Prairie Island nuclear plant, the refuse-derived steam plant and the service center - the breakfast at Treasure Island Resort & Casino provided insight into a changing industry.

"It's a lot of fun, it's a lot of excitement and there are a lot of challenges as we move forward," President of Xcel Energy Minnesota Chris Clark said.

Xcel is the nation's wind energy leader. With the utility adding 1,550 MW in the upper Midwest plus the recently announced proposal for 300 MW more by 2019, the company reported that it is on a pace to be the first to exceed 10,000 MW in 2021.

Xcel Energy owns and operates 78 generating plants capable of producing more than 16,000 megawatts of power. The utility purchases roughly another 8,000 MW through power-purchase agreements.

Future of nuclear

The company then asked for community support.

Tim O'Connor, chief nuclear officer, said the Prairie Island plant operated at 98.7 percent capacity in June, July and August, peak months for electricity consumption. Renewable sources can't do that. Carbon-producing sources such as coal and natural gas plants can't do that. Even with two 30-day refueling outages, the local plant averaged a 92 percent capacity. He called the performance phenomenal.

"That's what we're trying to get across. That's what it means to be an effective baseload set of units behind the scenes - to be able to support the combination of intermittent sources like wind and solar, but combined in a way that is great value in carbon-free energy plus affordable," O'Connor said.

"That's what we think one of the largest values are with nuclear staying in the portfolio," he said.

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission has directed Xcel to report in 2019 on the future of the Prairie Island and Monticello plants.

Clark said the Xcel officials will consider economic, reliability, safety and more before making a recommendation. The decision in Minnesota, however, will rest in large part with the PUC on whether the state prefers closing plants early, operating them to their current full licenses or seeking to extend their licenses.

The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission has licensed Monticello to 2030, Prairie Island Unit 1 to 2033 and Unit 2 to 2034.

Community support and legislative backing will go a long way, Clark and O'Connor said, in the final decision. The assessment will begin early next year.

"This is a public policy choice," Clark said. "This is a good opportunity to weigh in and be heard."