The Myth of Baseload Power

The myth of baseload power! Some people wish to discount renewable energy as useful generation contributing to our grid electricity supply. The detractors of renewable energy simply say, “Renewable energy cannot contribute to baseload power”. The concept and argument around this is an artificial engineering construct used to describe power generation generally producing large amounts of consistent power. However, the demand for electricity can be met by any generation source. Electricity generation systems already use a mix of different types of generators to meet the variability of demand.

So whilst the sun may not shine all the time and the wind may not blow all the time, the need for electricity also varies. ‘Baseload’ continues to be used, incorrectly, in the context of big, inflexible coal-fired power that wastes a lot of electricity.


The Myth of Baseload Power Generation

Mark Diesendorf from Australia’s Institute of Environmental Studies has this to say: “Opponents of renewable energy, from the coal and nuclear industries and from NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) groups, are disseminating the fallacy that renewable energy cannot provide baseload power to substitute for coal-fired electricity. Even Government Ministers and some ABC journalists are propagating this conventional ‘wisdom’, although it is false. The political implications are that, if the fallacy becomes widely believed to be true, renewable energy would always have to remain a niche market, rather than achieve its true potential of becoming a set of mainstream energy supply technologies.

The refutation of the fallacy has the following key logical steps:

• With or without renewable energy, there is no such thing as a perfectly reliable power station or electricity generating system.

• Electricity grids are already designed to handle variability in both demand and supply. To do this, they have different types of power station (base-load, intermediate-load and peak-load) and reserve power stations.

• Some renewable electricity sources (e.g. bioenergy, solar thermal electricity and geothermal ) have identical variability to coal-fired power stations and so they are base-load. They can be integrated without any additional back-up, as can efficient energy use.

• Other renewable electricity sources (e.g. wind, solar without storage, and run-of-river hydro ) have different kinds of variability from coal-fired power stations and so have to be considered separately.

• Wind power provides a third source of variability to be integrated into a system that already has to balance a variable conventional supply against a variable demand.

• The variability of small amounts of wind power in a grid is indistinguishable from variations in demand. Therefore, existing peak-load plant and reserve plant can handle small amounts of wind power at negligible extra cost.

• For large amounts of wind power connected to the grid from several geographically dispersed wind farms, total wind power generally varies smoothly and therefore cannot be described accurately as ‘intermittent’. Thus, the variability of large-scale dispersed wind power is unlike that of a single wind turbine. Nevertheless, it may require some additional back-up.

• As the penetration of wind power increases substantially, so do the additional costs of reserve plant and fuel used for balancing wind power variations. However, when wind power supplies up to 20% of electricity generation, these additional costs are still relatively small.”

Mark Diesendorf’s paper discusses this in more detail, and can be found here.

It is interesting to note that The US Department of Energy also has an article refuting the myth of baseload power. Below is a short extract.

Photovoltaic (PV) technology can meet electricity demand on any scale. The solar energy resource in a 100-mile-square area of Nevada could supply the United States with all its electricity (about 800 gigawatts) using modestly efficient (10%) commercial PV modules. A more realistic scenario and stepping ove the myth of baseload involves distributing these same PV systems throughout the 50 states. Currently available sites—such as vacant land, parking lots, and rooftops—could be used. The land requirement to produce 800 gigawatts would average out to be about 17 x 17 miles per state. Alternatively, PV systems built in the “brownfields”—the estimated 5 million acres of abandoned industrial sites in our nation’s cities—could supply 90% of America’s current electricity.

These hypothetical cases emphasize that PV is not “area-impaired” in delivering electricity. The critical point is that PV does not have to compete with the myth of baseload power. Its strength is in providing electricity when and where energy is most limited and most expensive. It does not simply replace some fraction of generation. Rather, it displaces the right portion of the load, shaving peak demand during periods when energy is most constrained and expensive.

In the long run, the U.S. PV Industry Roadmap does expect PV to provide a “significant fraction of U.S. electricity needs.” This adds up to at least 15% of new added electricity capacity in 2020, and then 10 years later, at least 10% of the nation’s total electricity.

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