Xcel at the Legislature

Xcel Energy, which supplies power to 1.3 million Minnesotans through its subsidiary Northern States Power-Minnesota, has a history of asking favors from taxpayers and the state of Minnesota. Once again, Xcel Energy is seeking legislative favors, this time with unsavory hints of blackmail.

On Wednesday, Xcel Energy claimed if extra nuclear storage space is not granted for power plants on Prairie Island and in Monticello, electricity bills in Minnesota would rise 10 percent. However, Commerce Department officials said closing the plants would only result in a 1 percent cost increase. Xcel’s position is also suspect because the Prairie Island facility was granted permission to house additional nuclear waste under a 1994 state compromise with the understanding that Xcel would “never approach the Legislature again.”

Xcel Energy is on shaky ground. It posted a net loss of $2 billion last year. Last November, Xcel wrote off $2.9 billion in taxes due to NRG Energy, an Xcel subsidiary sinking into the tendrils of bankruptcy. Upon NRG filing Chapter 11, Xcel Energy requested $676 million in tax benefits. For the past two years, Xcel Energy stocks have dipped. These troubling financial statistics should encourage Minnesotans to lessen, not increase, dependence on Xcel Energy.

Xcel Energy’s nuclear facilities, in operation since the early 1970s, have been on a steady decline. Nuclear power production performance is expressed in a percent called a “net capacity factor.” Prairie Island’s unit one and two facilities scored 79.6 and 93.4 percent, respectively. Monticello scored only 76.5 percent. The national average is 90 percent. Monticello’s operation ranked among the worst in the nation. Additionally, aging plants combined with budget cuts have resulted in risky situations. And as Xcel’s financial troubles reveal, it could ultimately mean cutting costs leading to less security, fewer inspections and delays in installation of safety equipment.

Xcel claims a 30 percent deficit in power production would result if the plants were forced to shut down. Twenty nuclear plants nationwide have been forced to close because of the costs of maintaining aging facilities, and in each case electricity shortages did not take place. Even if shortages would occur, safer alternative energies could easily be tapped to close the gap. The Public Utilities Commission has already granted permission for Xcel to build a 94-mile power line to access southern Minnesota’s wind-generated power. Refusal to award additional storage space would force Xcel Energy to seriously consider tapping alternatives to nuclear energy. Moreover, if the Legislature grants extra storage space, the nuclear facilities would at best only produce power until the 2030s. Eventually, Minnesota will have to give up nuclear power in favor of cheaper and safer alternatives.

Xcel’s plans appear to be working. On Wednesday, a bill introduced by Sen. Mark Ourada, R-Buffalo, and Rep. Bruce Anderson, R-Buffalo Township, would fulfill Xcel Energy’s requests. Corporate scandals such as Enron’s demonstrated how much faith should be invested in corporate-hired experts. Legislators should call Xcel Energy’s bluff and deny expansion of storage on Prairie Island and in Monticello.