The sheer volume of utilities committed to reducing or eliminating their carbon emissions by 2050 has made it easy to take this feat for granted. But two years ago, one of the country's largest investor-owned utilities set this wave in motion, and much of the sector's successive action is in part thanks to leadership at that utility, according to observers.
Ben Fowke, who has led Xcel Energy as chairman and CEO since 2011, is credited with setting a precedent when in 2018 Xcel became the first multi-state U.S. utility company to commit to phasing out carbon emissions entirely.
"Many utilities and many states have followed that initiative, and it's become more accepted wisdom that that's where America is headed. So I give Ben Fowke a lot of credit," said Michael Noble, executive director of Minnesota-based clean energy advocacy group Fresh Energy.
Since then, Fowke, who became chairman of utility trade group Edison Electric Institute in June, has kept his utility committed to that path, stakeholders say.
"Ben Fowke is a tremendous leader for our industry, and ... he has kept the focus on continuing our work to advance our industry's clean energy goals, while at the same time helping our customers and our member companies manage and recover from the coronavirus pandemic," said EEI President Tom Kuhn in an email.
Fowke's "steel for fuel" strategy
Fowke has spent the majority of his career at Xcel. In 1997, he became vice president of retail business operations for New Century Energies, which in 2000 merged with Northern States Power Company to form Xcel.
His predecessor, Dick Kelly, was "beloved at Xcel," according to Mike Bull, who worked at the utility from 2009 to 2013, setting a high bar for leadership that Fowke met quickly.
"Mr. Fowke came from the accounting side of utility operations, and we didn't know whether he'd continue that inspiring approach to the future of the electric industry," said Bull, now director of policy and external affairs at the Minnesota Center for Energy and Environment, in an email. "But he put the pedal to the floor on Dick's vision and made it his own — and did it in a way that has been good for Xcel shareholders and customers, with strategies like 'steel for fuel'."
"Steel for fuel" refers to Xcel's strategy to swap fossil fuels for fuel-free resources such as wind and solar. Under that strategy, the utility is currently on track to be more than 60% carbon-free by 2027, with 38% of its generation coming from wind and 8% from solar. It will also retire half its coal capacity between 2006 and 2027, retiring "nearly all" its plants in the next devade. according to Xcel spokesperson Julie Borgen. Fowke was not available for an interview.
In September, the utility filed a proposal with Minnesota utility regulators to spend $750 million to add 650 MW of wind. The company is planning to propose a $650 million investment in 460 MW of solar in early 2021, Fowke said during Xcel's latest Q3 earnings call. Xcel also announced in June it would speed up $3 billion in renewable energy investments in response to Minnesota regulators' request that utilities get involved in the state's economic recovery.
The utility is also bullish on electric vehicles. In August, it released its vision for powering 1.5 million electric vehicles across its service territory, making all its company vehicles electric by 2030 and investing $300 million in EV programs.
Analysts are confident that Xcel will see these goals through.
"Ben has done a good job convincing investors that Xcel can reach and even exceed some of the goals that the management team sets," said Travis Miller, an analyst at Morningstar. "The stock has done phenomenally well under his leadership. And I think that's a reflection of management setting out and executing on a strategy that the market likes."
Although renewable energy is a major focal point, Fowke has said he does not believe those resources will bring the utility to 100% carbon-free energy on their own. The company was awarded a $10.5 million grant from the Department of Energy in October to produce hydrogen using nuclear power, potentially ramping up the hours its nuclear plants are able to operate and generate revenue while creating a dispatchable, zero-emissions fuel.
Challenges the company still faces include upcoming regulatory decisions from Colorado and Minnesota about whether they it can move forward with some of its more ambitious plans, said Miller. Meanwhile, the pressure is on for the utility to decarbonize quickly, said Noble.
"Remember, that what the science requires is we decarbonize the entire economy worldwide by mid century. And what's absolutely clear now is that the electric system has to go faster and farther," he said.