The former chief executive of Xcel Energy’s Colorado operations has a new company-wide role focused on planning the utility’s energy future.
Alice Jackson will have a lead role in coming up with strategies to meet the company’s goals of cutting carbon emissions by 80% by 2030 and 100% by 2050 across all its territories, including Minnesota.
A ballerina who performed internationally as a child, she aspired to be a surgeon but instead became a computer programmer. She was working at Enron, her first job after college, when it collapsed, then started making her mark at Occidental Petroleum before joining Xcel in the Texas Panhandle. Along the way, she raised four boys who now range in age from 8 to 19. After arriving in Denver in 2013, she eventually rose to chief executive of the Xcel subsidiary Public Service Co. of Colorado. Soon after, the company made its then envelope-pushing emission pledges in 2018.
In her new role, announced in May, Jackson will lead an Xcel team charged with investigating how to get there. The mission goes beyond that target, though, and includes efforts to decarbonize transportation and buildings through expanded use of electricity. She takes care to call it an energy system, downplaying the distinction between electricity and heating or transportation fuels.
In a recent interview, Jackson said she sees a blurring of roles between customers and suppliers. “Think about rooftop, solar and community solar garden installations, but also electric vehicles and battery storage being added at the distribution level, where customers are making the choices and the batteries of those EVs are potentially becoming not only consumers but also generators,” she said.
The changing climate and more extreme weather also factor into planning. For example, Colorado regulators, as part of their review of Xcel’s electric resource planning, asked the utility to model its ability to respond to extreme heat waves, such as those that struck the Pacific Northwest in June 2021.
Minnesota and Colorado, both states where Xcel dominates, are among the nation’s leaders in pushing the energy transition.
“Colorado typically sees policy changes more quickly,” said Jackson, citing the firm push to electrify transportation. “But then Minnesota is catching up quickly on that, whereas they’re ahead of [Colorado] on some other things,” she said, citing smart meters as an example.
Xcel’s resource mix differs in the two states in that it has nuclear power in Minnesota. Colorado’s lone nuclear plant, St. Vrain, was converted to natural gas decades ago. Will nuclear play a larger role in the future? Possibly, in the longer term. Jackson said Xcel is watching to see if a small modular reactor under development in Idaho, the first of that technology in the United States, gets across the finish line. Can it come in at projected cost? “That’s something we’ll watch very closely,” she said.
In the short term, Jackson and her team members will be looking for ways to optimize investments given the changing energy matrix.
“For example, if we go into a neighborhood because a pad-mount transformer is at end-of-life, something malfunctioned, or we had a bad weather storm that caused damages — do you put the exact same one back in, or do you upgrade it in expectation that this same neighborhood is going to have more EVs and more rooftop solar, so you don’t have to come back again? Those are the types of questions that this team is going to be looking at,” she said.
Microgrids are another potential tool. Xcel’s franchise agreement with Boulder, Colorado, identifies an unusual collaborative process for creating the energy systems of the future. One element is the potential for microgrids to shore up some of the canyons on the city’s fringes that are somewhat isolated. Other applications could include fire and police stations, community centers, airports, or industrial districts.
Beyond the physics are the finances. Who pays and in what proportion?
“Does that cost go to everyone on the system or just those that are on the microgrid?” Jackson said. She expects it will take a couple of years to resolve these questions about microgrids. “I know we’re examining the best situations or places to do them first,” she said.
Jackson’s team will also be studying storage. “We need a variety,” she said. “It’s not going to be, ‘Oh, this is the golden ticket.’ It has to be a variety of pieces of the puzzle that come together to build the system.”
She described possibilities including iron-ore-based, long-duration battery storage being developed by Form Energy, but no clear answers are available today.
“People talk about battery storage. They’re like, ‘Just build your wind and solar using battery storage.’” Lithium-ion batteries will provide shorter-term peaking capacity but not the extended duration that is needed. For the time being, Jackson sees natural gas being necessary, as reflected in the utility’s latest energy resource plan on the verge of approval by Colorado regulators. Those plans can later be adapted to burn zero-carbon fuels, she said.
Hydrogen may play a role, but it’s been five years out for about 50 years, Jackson said. Pumped-storage hydro has a better-proven track record, and the company in Colorado has been exploring the potential for that in Unaweep Canyon, south of Grand Junction. Such exploration is a 10-year process, she said, “but this process we’re in may come to a conclusion sooner.”
Similar to other utilities, Xcel doesn’t have a technology development division itself. It communicates its needs and works with developers. One group it works with is Energy Impact Partners, a venture capital organization that invests in up-and-coming technology companies trying to reduce energy emissions. Xcel also contributes to the Electric Power Resource Institute’s Low-Carbon Resources Initiative.
In Colorado, utilities have been mandated to join a fully organized and regional market for electricity by 2030. Some industry executives say it can happen much sooner. Most talk has been about joining existing markets, either the Arkansas-based Southwest Power Pool or the California Independent System Operator, called CAISO. Jackson called Xcel’s operations in Colorado the “Hawaii of the West. We’re in a bit of a donut hole.”
Along the Colorado border with Kansas and Nebraska is the interface with the Eastern electrical grid, with few DC portals between the Eastern and Western grids. But there are significant problems in the West, a place of some very large cities but vast spaces between and a tangled history of bilateral agreements governing use of that transmission.
“There’s a higher hurdle to show cost benefits to our customers from the transmission investment that’s necessary to build out a very integrated system,” Jackson said. The creation of the Western Markets Exploratory Group Dialogue last fall by several Western utilities has fostered useful discussion. “We’ve made more progress than I’ve seen in the West in a very long time.”
Xcel’s customers in the eight states it serves have different climates and geographies. They have much in common. Reliability and affordability are the cornerstones, she said, but customers, “regardless of political affiliation, are largely interested in an increasingly clean system.”
“It excites me to think of what does this look like 10 years down the road,” Jackson said. “How do we start preparing for that now?”