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Xcel Energy to use soy oil in its transformers

FARGO, N.D. (AP) - Xcel Energy says it will be the first large utility in the country to switch to soy-based transformers, using oil produced from domestic soybean crops.

The company now uses petroleum-based mineral oil, which is the industry standard and works well, Xcel spokeswoman Bonnie Lund said Thursday.

"We are aiming to minimize our impact on the environment while balancing that against cost and reliable service," Lund said. "We want a clean energy future."

The change will not affect customer bills, Lund said. She wasn't sure how much it would cost the company, but said, "From the information I have, it won't be significant."

All new transformers will use soy oil starting this year. The change will be "little by little" with transformers that must be replaced, Lund said.

More than 50,000 soy-based transformers currently are in use throughout the country, said officials at Cooper Power Systems, which developed the product. That includes more than 70 municipal and rural electric cooperatives.

Cooper officials say the soy oil saves money because it increases the life of the transformers and reduces the number of city services needed to respond to transformer oil fires. The fire point for the soy oil is 680 degrees, compared to 311 degrees for mineral oil, Cooper officials said.

"From a field perspective, having biodegradable soy oil eliminates a lot of concerns with cleanup, should something go wrong," Lund said.

North Dakota ranks ninth in the country in soybean production. Iowa is No. 1, followed by Illinois, Minnesota, Indiana, Ohio, Nebraska, Missouri and South Dakota.

"One thing that is neat about this situation is that we are using a product that has a lot of local connections," Lund said.

Xcel serves eight states in the West and Midwest: Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas and Wisconsin.

Xcel President and Chief Executive Officer Dick Kelly said the use of oil from domestic soybean crops should show the company's environmental leadership.

"While the standard transformers function effectively and safely, we believe that our customers expect more," Kelly said in a statement.