Western Wisconsin utility now generates over half of its electricity without carbon

Utilities say they're on pace to meet 2030 emissions, but 2022 PSC report says most weren't

Steam rises from the coal-fired power plant
Steam rises from the coal-fired power plant Neurath near Grevenbroich, Germany, Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022. Michael Probst/AP Photo

A utility that serves customers in parts western and northwest Wisconsin announced this week that over half of its electric generation is now carbon-free, and company officials say they are on pace to potentially exceed their carbon-reduction goals by the end of the decade.

Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy released its annual sustainability report this week, showing 53 percent of its energy generation is carbon-free. Wisconsin is part of Xcel’s Midwest system, which generates 69 percent of its electricity without carbon. In 2018, the utility was the first in the nation to pledge it would provide 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2050.

“We’ve made a lot of progress since then, but to be over 50 percent means that we’re halfway home to our long-term goal,” said Frank Prager, Xcel’s chief sustainability officer. “It gets harder the further you go along, but it’s very exciting.”

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Seventeen years ago, coal plants accounted for 56 percent of Xcel’s power generation. Last year, that number fell to 23 percent. Over the same period, wind power generation grew ten-fold from 3 percent of their mix to 30. Solar power — not even part of the equation in 2005 — now produces about 4 percent of the utility’s power. Nuclear power has also played a role in why most of Xcel’s electricity is carbon free, as it accounted for 12 percent of the energy mix in 2005 and 13 percent in 2022.

Other utilities in the state say they’re also on pace to meet carbon-reduction goals. But a 2022 report from the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin said four out of the state’s five biggest utilities were likely to fall short of their 2030 emissions targets. The report used data from 2020 and showed that four utilities were already halfway toward achieving their end-of-decade emissions goals. All have set a goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

This table shows utilities' projected carbon emissions reductions over time
Data Courtesy of the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin

State regulators have approved 29 utility-scale renewable energy projects since 2018, with three more pending approval, according to Meghan Sovey, communications director for the PSC.

As of 2020, Xcel had made the most progress toward reaching its goal of an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions from 2005 levels by 2030, while Madison Gas and Electric had the farthest to go toward meeting the same goal, the report said. At the same time, Alliant Energy was projected to exceed its 2030 goal of reducing emissions by 50 percent from 2005 levels.

By 2028, the PSC anticipated Xcel would reduce its carbon emissions by 78 percent from 2005 levels, just 2 percent lower than its goal. However, the company’s new sustainability report says Xcel expects to reduce emissions by “at least 85 percent and deliver 80 percent of energy from carbon-free resources” within the next seven years.

“We are going to get to our 2030 goal,” Prager said. “Now once we get to the 2030 goal, of course, we’re going to have to continue to make progress to get to that 2050 goal.”

Prager said technological advancements will be required for the company to produce 100 percent of its electricity from carbon-free resources by 2050. While the company is investing in battery storage for its renewable resources, he said it needs a “dispatchable resource” that can be counted on when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun doesn’t shine.

“We need to have something in place that we can turn on and turn off. Today, we don’t have that kind of resource other than the nuclear plants we operate in Minnesota,” he said. “We don’t have the technologies available today, but we’re very optimistic and we’re seeing a lot of technology development that’s going to really make a difference in our ability to get to 100 percent carbon-free energy.”

Watt-hour meters track electricity used by residents of an apartment building.
Watt-hour meters track electricity used by residents of an apartment building. J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo

Xcel isn’t the only utility that’s made progress toward achieving its renewable energy goals. As of 2022, 37 percent of Alliant Energy’s energy resources were renewable, and the company says it’s on pace to hit 51 percent renewables by 2030.

Last year’s PSC report also projected that Alliant would reduce carbon emissions by 62 percent from 2005 levels by the end of the decade, surpassing its goal of a 50 percent reduction.

Tony Palese, a spokesperson for Alliant, said the utility has made large investments in renewable energy in recent years.

“Here in Wisconsin, we’ve got 12 utility-scale solar projects that are planned — three are already up and running, (and) we’ve got nine under construction,” he said. “In total, that’s going to add over a gigawatt of clean solar power for our customers, enough to power almost 300,000 homes annually.”

As of 2020, the state’s two WEC Energy Group utilities — We Energies and Wisconsin Public Service — were both over halfway toward meeting their 2030 goal of reducing emissions by 80 percent, according to the PSC report. But each utility was projected to fall short of that goal.

By 2028, the PSC projected We Energies would reduce emissions by 55 percent and Wisconsin Public Service by 64 percent. In 2022, renewables accounted for 6.2 percent of We Energies’ energy resource mix. Nuclear energy — through a long-term power purchase agreement — represented 30.5 percent. Meanwhile, renewables were 17 percent of Wisconsin Public Service’s energy resource mix, according to 2023 greenhouse gas reporting and emission rates.

But WEC Energy Group has 15 renewable projects either completed or in progress in Wisconsin, according to the company’s website.

“We have reduced carbon emissions 49 percent since 2005 and remain on track to achieve our future carbon reduction goals,” said Brendan Conway, a spokesperson for WEC Energy Group.

Madison Gas and Electric, or MGE, was almost one-third of the way toward achieving its 80 percent carbon emissions reduction goal as of 2020, according to the PSC report. The PSC estimated the utility would reduce its emissions by 70 percent by 2028.

MGE spokesperson Steve Schultz said the utility expects 25 percent of its energy resource mix will be made up of renewables by 2024, a goal the company initially set for 2025.

“Our 2022 carbon emissions reduction figure isn’t available yet. But through 2021, MGE has reduced carbon emissions 27 percent from 2005 levels,” he said. “We fully expect to achieve our goal of at least an 80 percent reduction in carbon by 2030 and net-zero carbon electricity by 2050.”

While several utilities have requested electric rate increases for 2024, citing the upfront costs of clean energy projects, they say renewable projects should help stem future rate increases in the long-run because it will cut down on utilities’ dependence on fluctuating fuel costs.

“These zero-fuel-costs systems, such as solar and wind, have upfront costs — you need to build that infrastructure to get those systems up and running,” Palese said. “But the value is really long-term over the lifespan of those projects.”

In addition to long-term savings for customers, Prager said the clean energy transition is also necessary to combat climate change.

“This clean energy transition is a tremendous benefit for the environment,” he said. “We’ve actually done an analysis on whether our plans are consistent with the science on climate change, and our analysis has shown that the trajectory we’re on is consistent with trying to protect the globe from very high temperatures.”