The archaic nature of baseload power–or why electricity will become like long-distance.

The old grid, beholden to massive, polluting baseload power plants, is being replaced by a nimbler, high-tech 21st century system oriented toward variable renewable energy.

The old grid, beholden to massive, polluting baseload power plants, is being replaced by a nimbler, high-tech 21st century system oriented toward variable renewable energy.

There are no shortage of skeptics out there, even some among environmentalists and clean energy advocates, who are unconvinced that renewable energy can ever be the dominant–perhaps even sole–source of electricity generation.

The reasons for this skepticism vary. Some, for example, argue that the land needs for sufficient generation of wind and solar power are too great. This turns out to be an incredibly lame argument, but that’s the subject of a different article.

More frequent are the arguments that “baseload” power–large power plants that tend to run 24/7–are necessary to ensure reliable electricity and that the variable nature of some renewables–solar and wind–can’t provide that reliability. Then there’s the notion that the electrical grid can only accommodate a certain level of renewables, around 30-40%. Above that and the grid pretty much breaks down. These arguments are actually related and solved in the same way.

More recently, an argument has been circling among energy nerds–especially pro-nuclear energy nerds–that the integration of renewables into the grid reaches a peak for economic reasons: that renewables are limited by their cost.  Not by their high cost, but by their low cost, or as one writer put it: solar and wind eat their own lunch. But that merely shows that not only must the technical nature of the grid change, and it can; but so must its economic nature, and it can too.

The electric grid in use today was mostly designed in the 20th century. Large baseload nuclear and fossil fuel plants were built, usually far from the largest electricity consumers (cities and large industry), and transported by huge (and not particular efficient) power lines. Those baseload plants had, and have, high capacity factors and run pretty much all the time, although nuclear reactors have to be shut for refueling for a few weeks every 12-18 months. Utilities try to arrange those shutdowns to occur during periods of low demand. During peak power needs–hot summer days in most of the country–smaller gas plants and in the old days even oil plants would be fired up to supplement the baseload levels.

And it all worked pretty well given the technology available at the time.

But, as we all now know all too clearly, that system had a price–a price not reflected in the cost of electricity. That system was and is killing us. Those large nuclear and fossil fuel plants are spewing out carbon dioxide and radioactivity and creating large quantities of dirty and deadly waste products that society doesn’t know what to do with.

Had the cost of those effects–which do have a price, a steep one–been incorporated into the price we and our parents paid for electricity, we probably would have moved to a clean energy system much faster. As it is, we no longer have much of a choice.

Fortunately, as is being proven daily in Europe, a grid based on smaller, distributed variable power sources can be just as reliable, and even more resilient and secure, than a grid reliant on baseload power.  Variable does not mean unreliable: as long as it can be reliably projected with sufficient advance time what the wind will do and thus how much wind power will be available where, and the same for the sun, then a variable grid can be highly reliable. And those can be and are, in fact, reliably projected.

The ability to integrate a moderately large amount (say 30-35% or so) of renewables into a baseload-dominated grid is a given. It is happening daily. Not so much in the U.S., although even here states like Iowa are getting more than 20% of their power from renewables, and the percentage of renewables is set to rise rapidly–both on their own for sound economic reasons and due to encouragement of them in the Clean Power Plan.

But at some point above 35-40% renewables or so, a conflict arises. If more renewables are to be brought into the grid, the large baseload plants have to begin closing–even if they theoretically remain useful. That’s because the kind of grid that works for the variable renewables–a fast, nimble grid where power from different sources scattered in different locations can be ramped up and down quickly depending on where it is being generated and where it is needed–doesn’t work well for baseload plants, especially nuclear reactors, which cannot ramp up and down quickly. Those kinds of plants were designed to run 24/7 and that’s what they do–they’re not designed to fit in with a grid that doesn’t want them to run 24/7, that instead wants them to run when their power is needed. And the higher the penetration of renewables, the less the baseload plants’ power is needed.

Add in energy storage, the new kid on the block, and polluting power plants running 24/7 become an anachronism. When the variable sources aren’t generating what is needed, just release the stored, and cheaper, electricity they generated earlier during periods of low demand. The polluting baseload plants then make no sense at all. Why throw carbon dioxide into the air and tritium into the water and generate lethal radioactive waste just to keep dirty and usually more expensive power plants operating just for those few hours in the week when they might be useful? With storage, they’re not needed, or even particularly useful, at all.

What’s stopping us, or slowing us anyway, is not the technology for the new grid–that exists. It’s the rules. And the political will to transform the grid to accommodate the transformative technologies that have been developed over the past two decades. If we’re going to move into the 21st century, and with nearly 15% of the century already gone we’re a good ways into it, then we’d better get moving quickly. The old rules need to be changed; David Roberts, formerly of Grist, has compiled a useful list of some of those needed changes.

One problem, obviously, is that utilities don’t want to close their old baseload power plants if they are still useful at generating electricity. They want to put off that retirement date as long as possible. Assuming its operating and maintenance costs are not so high that it loses money, the longer a power plant runs the more profit it returns. And utilities are about making money, not transforming the grid.

In the U.S., at least, we’re not at the point where profitable baseload power plants have to be forced closed for the greater good–renewables don’t yet make up enough of our power to require that step. But parts of Europe are quickly getting there, and we in the U.S. will get there in many places faster than most people now think–surely within the next decade. Germany is already showing that a grid with a high penetration of renewables can be reliable, and that forcing reactors to close can not only be publicly acceptable, it can attain wide public support. The larger problem in Germany these days is not the amount of renewables in place, it’s that there is so much renewable generation that the grid needs to be strengthened to better distribute that electricity across the country and for export to nations like Poland and Austria–which badly want that cheap, clean power.  Public opinion polls suggest that in the U.S., a similarly high penetration of renewables will be most welcome, even if anti-nuclear sentiment is not at German levels.

Perhaps forcing reactors to close won’t be necessary; enough are already unprofitable, and more are likely to become so in coming years that perhaps they will simply shut down, be replaced by renewables and it will all happen quietly and happily. More likely though, as nuclear utilities contemplate 80-year operating licenses and squeezing every last watt of power out of them regardless of their age or safety condition, that could become the nuclear issue of the next decade for the public, state regulators and policymakers and the like: should existing reactors stay open when they’re still viable or be forced aside to welcome larger amounts of cleaner, safer and usually cheaper renewables? From our perspective, the answer is obviously yes, they should shut down to make way for the more modern system. But that’s an answer that will take a lot of preparation and groundwork beginning now, because the nuclear utilities will fight that hard.

That’s a somewhat different issue than the one that confronts us today, which is should uneconomic reactors stay open or move aside for renewables? The nuclear utilities want the ground rules changed to force ratepayers to keep those uneconomic reactors open regardless of their cost. That’s an easy argument to make: of course the rules shouldn’t be changed to favor the higher-priced, dirtier power source. And it appears that argument is on the verge of victory in Illinois–the most nuclear state in the U.S. If that argument does end up carrying the day there, it can everywhere.

As for the notion that solar and wind are too cheap, that just shows the absurd nature of the economics of electricity and the failure to consider external costs–the environmental damage they cause and the full lifecycle costs of their existence–in the economic equation. There is more to life than the dollar, though you wouldn’t know it by how many traditional markets work, and, in fact, we have reached the point that unless “more to life” is adequately factored into prices, there may not be any life at all.

The concept being bandied about by these pro-nukers is that if there is “too much” solar and wind in the system, its price will eventually become zero–essentially free. And at that price–or no price if you will–the system breaks down and there will be no more investment in solar and wind. Who would want to invest in it if you have to give it away?

There are ways around the problem even under the existing system, from feed-in tariffs to Power Purchase Agreements. And the “problem” itself still has at its foundation the baseload concept of electricity generation and distribution. Absent those baseload plants, which only inhibit renewable generation anyway, there cannot be “too much” renewables in the system.  But including the real costs of nuclear and fossil fuel use would be the best step. Because once added in, those costs make that kind of generation too expensive to use no matter what the competition. And if the only choice is low-cost to zero-cost renewables, well, certainly consumers wouldn’t mind.

In the real world, rather than abstract economic modeling scenarios, electricity is a necessity and it will be provided. But in the real world, in the new world of the 21st century electricity grid, it may well be that electricity itself will not be as profitable to generators as it was in the 20th century. Energy efficiency is reducing demand and that, despite a growing population and even with economic growth, is a trend that will continue and probably accelerate (Maryland, for example, has set a new policy of reducing demand by 2% every year).  Renewables act to drive down electricity prices. Certainly the idea that individual utilities, or even a consortium dominated by a single utility (a la Vogtle or Summer) will ever again build mega-billion dollar power plants of any kind just in order to sell electricity, is a relic of the 20th century playing out today as farce. It won’t be playing out much longer. Utilities, like Virginia’s Dominion, that may think that obsolete model still applies, will regret it.

Electricity may never be free, or too cheap to meter, but it may well become one of life’s little bargains. Long distance in my lifetime has gone from an expensive luxury item rarely used; to an inexpensive, frequently-dialed option; to a free add-on to both my landline and iphone plans. For my millennial kids, the concept of a “long-distance” call is meaningless: they’ve never made one and never will. But they do still use phones, and all the services modern phone plans offer.

The costs of electricity are going to come down too–technology and renewables are already starting to see to that–but someone, whether it be the traditional utilities or someone smarter is going to come along and figure out how to make money by providing electricity add-ons and services, even if the electricity itself is free or nearly so. Totally free electricity may be too much to hope for, there is a grid to pay for and maintain after all, and there will be for the foreseeable future. But the money to be made will be in the add-on services, not the basic electricity.

The solar rooftop people have pretty much already figured this out for their slice of the business–whether by lease or purchase, you pay primarily for the equipment, installation and maintenance, not so much for the electricity. But since rooftop solar doesn’t work for everyone nor everywhere, there is a market ready for something new and safe and clean and that won’t destroy the planet we live on. I’d say that’s a pretty damn large market looking for the electricity equivalent of long-distance in the iphone era. With a market like that, someone is going to deliver, even if the electricity itself is little more than a low-cost add-on to other services people want.

That won’t happen tomorrow, of course. As Barry Cinnamon of The Energy Show podcast put it, “But this change in our energy sources will take many years, just as the complete transition from ‘horse and buggy’ transportation to gas-powered cars took 50 years. As with other large-scale technological changes, customer economics will force the current incumbent energy providers to change (unlikely), or go out of business (more likely). It’s a virtuous cycle as more customers are satisfied with renewable power generation, and more people are employed in these industries.”

For nuclear power though–even for “small modular reactors” (which actually are not so small, most are much larger than the early U.S. commercial reactors like Big Rock Point and Yankee Rowe and some are as large as Fukushima Daiichi Unit-1)–and fossil fuels as well, the transformation means extinction. By definition, SMRs are also baseload power plants; despite being smaller than today’s behemoth reactors, they are designed to run 24/7 and like their larger brethren, cannot power up and down quickly. Before they even exist, they are obsolete. Their polluting “baseload” means of providing their product (electricity) will be unneeded and functionally and economically irrelevant–unable to compete with those offering electricity as part of a set of services, rather than as an end in itself.

Michael Mariotte

August 20, 2015


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14 thoughts on “The archaic nature of baseload power–or why electricity will become like long-distance.

  1. Mark Robinowitz

    I look forward to seeing a grid wide test to determine if power grids can actually function without baseload.

    There’s also the small fact that PV and wind farms need fossil fuels and minerals and a lot of other things to manufacture and install.

    In Takoma Park, like other temperate climates, solar PV is great in the summer, OK in the spring and fall, and barely noticeable in the winter.

    As a user of PV for a quarter century I’m skeptical the no-baseload-experiment will be a success.

    1. Calamity Jean

      “In Takoma Park, like other temperate climates, solar PV is great in the summer, OK in the spring and fall, and barely noticeable in the winter. “

      OTOH, in most temperate climates the weather tends to be windier in winter than in summer. For grid-connected users, the supply of electric power will be a varying combination of solar, wind and other sources.

    2. Michael Mariotte Post author

      Well, it won’t happen in my lifetime, but I’m confident it will happen in my children’s lifetime. Yes, renewables need materials; they do not need fossil fuels to power their manufacture, however. They just need power, period. And as renewables take on a larger and larger share of the load, renewables can and will indeed power factories as well.

      You are indeed one of the skeptical environmentalists cited in the article. We’re convinced–and the evidence pours in daily–that you’re wrong. A clean energy system is possible and is, we believe, inevitable. Rooftop solar cannot do it alone, of course: utility-scale solar, wind–which is now reaching capacity factors similar to those of fossil fuels–existing and limited new hydropower, certain types of biomass, geothermal, energy efficiency, storage, and a smart grid that can handle variable generating sources–they’re all part of a new clean energy system. There are no longer any technical reasons such a system cannot exist, and the economic reasons that held back clean energy development are increasingly vanishing as well; in fact, a clean energy system is at this point just as cheap, and becoming even cheaper, than the baseload system of the past. Whether it comes in time to save the planet from climate chaos remains an open question. That’s where advocacy–education, organizing, mobilizing–comes in.

      1. Mark Robinowitz

        Solar panels and wind turbines definitely do need fossil fuels and minerals to make and move and install.

        My microwind power system also has rare Earths in it, perhaps some efficient models can be made without them.

        Delivery trucks across time zones also need fossil fuels and asphalt (to maintain the highways).

        My inverter was made in the same time zone but the components are very international and dependent on the just in time inventory system.

        Sorry I’m not a supporter of biomass for electricity, which means burning trees for electricity since that’s the highest density of stored energy. Burning grass for energy is not a real proposal and corn for fuel is barely net energy positive.

        Geothermal is mostly very site specific. Ground source heat pumps make more sense, for those who can afford them, but they still need energy inputs to work.

        PV made in China is not at all “clean energy” if you consider the production practices of the factories. It’s clean here, but not at the point of production.

        The time to have saved us from climate chaos was probably a half century ago, if not earlier. when the warnings came in about overconsumption, overpopulation, overshoot. At best, we have the potential for mitigation.

        Even if electricity and liquid fuels were free and nonpolluting there are many other limits to growth that we are colliding into, including food, fresh water, forests, soils, fish. All other empires have boomed and bust, now it’s our turn. If we’re smarter we’ll think about a graceful landing.

      2. Michael Mariotte Post author

        You’ll notice we said “certain types of biomass.” We do not support burning trees for energy. There are some types of grasses grown for the purpose, and some possibilities for some types of algae, that may prove worthwhile. If I were as pessimistic about the future as you, I’d probably not bother to wake up in the morning….When you have children, you learn to do everything you can possibly do to build for the future, not whine about the past that one can do nothing about.

  2. Shannon Wilson

    I have used solar for at least 20 years (PV,water heat, & passive). However, if you live north of 40 degrees latitude you are not going to harvest much from the sun in the winter. However, technologies like solar, wind, heat pumps, and efficiency might smooth the transition only if we accept the truth of our current dire situation and relinquish many modern luxuries.
    What is needed more than anything is the truth about the state of the biosphere as well as how to realistically address our predicament, not hypotheticals. We must convince the masses that technology is not going to stave off a downward standard of living because of the depletion of finite resources.
    The average modern North American, European etc standard of living are factors more lavish than the King and Queen of England in 1920. Accepting the truth that we must give up this luxurious standard of living to maintain a livable biosphere is the denial that keeps society from changing or giving up some luxuries for our own survival as a species.
    We, including myself, are spoiled and are revolted by the thought of reverting to the days without being immersed in luxuries we hardly think about every hour of every day.
    What are luxuries you may ask: refrigeration, automobiles, electronic gadgets, airline travel, grocery stores containing food from all over the world without any shortage, restaurants, telephones, electricity, air conditioning, shopping malls, highways, trains, etc.
    Food, shelter, clean water and social connection are the bare necessities for human life. If we all had those basic necessities met without want or need for more could we do without our huge array of solar panels and the electric grid? How did humans make it without the electric grid or automobiles before the 20th century? What gives me some hope? Perhaps soon all people in our social and eco justice movements will unite in creating a vision of a steady state economic system which is based on ecological limits and ecological costs of resource extraction and then contrast it with the current economic system’s predictable final result. The societal realization of these contrasted results might spur the enactment of a standard of living that maintains life’s bare necessities that won’t destroy our life sustaining biosphere.

    1. Michael Mariotte Post author

      Spoken like a true Luddite. Seriously, you think things like refrigeration, telephones and electricity are “luxuries”? And the internet too, surely. Because who needs communication? And who needs the life-saving medical advances that require electricity? Not to mention little things like lightbulbs in our homes. And food because some people live where nothing grows in the winter. And all those living in poverty and even without electricity in the Third World? We’ll just tell them to sit back and enjoy it because that’s the best it will ever get. Yes, we can all go back to the days when royalty ruled in their castles and serfs toiled in the fields for their daily ration of grog. I can’t wait to see the political party that adopts “lower standard of living” as its banner and waves that flag high. Actually, I can wait–I’d live for centuries.

      Perhaps you forget that the world’s population was considerably smaller then, and thus so were its needs. And while you can argue for zero or even negative population growth, that’s not exactly a speedy process. Nor, I daresay, will very many people join you in your quest to return to the days of yore.

      We have to live with the hand that was dealt us, and those of us born in the second half of the 20th century, and those just beginning to come of age and social awareness, have to confront the world we actually face. And that’s a world where electricity is indeed a necessity. And so is transportation and communication and all those other things–most of them are what most people would consider advances.

      Wind power is now approaching fossil fuels in capacity factor: Solar power’s capacity factor is going up too, and there is no reason to believe we have reached anywhere near its potential. Add in the other renewables and ever-increasing energy efficiency and modern grids and it clearly not only will be–it already is on a purely technical basis–possible to power our planet with clean energy. Not pristine energy: there is not and has never been pristine energy, but clean energy, energy that is sustainable for the planet.

      There obviously is work to do to get there, especially at the grid level, but it is far more advantageous to society and to the continued lifting of people out of poverty and misery to do that work than it would be to give up and return to the pre-industrial days of dysentery, plague and vastly shorter lifespans–a time that it’s hard to imagine anyone would be nostalgic for. No thanks.

      1. Bruce Stephenson

        I sincerely hope that Michael Marriotte is right and that Mark Robinowitz and Shannon Wilson are both incorrect. I’m a Physicist specialized in global energy resources. I hope that our civilization will continue to have a reliable renewable-powered electrical grid far into the future. I have a fundamentally optimistic perspective, tempered by a large dose of realism.

        That all said, a thorough understanding of the facts leads me to believe that increased use of renewable energy will not adequately substitute for the fossil energy (which includes nuclear-generated energy due to low historic net energy return from nuclear) that provides the base load for the North American electric grid. Much more likely is that the grid will intermittently fail, with some parts of it becoming renewable-friendly and some parts going dark. Those parts of the grid that have both a renewable-friendly grid and lots of renewable energy are probably the parts of the grid likely to avoid going dark for the most years into the future. In other words, upgrading our electric grid to operate on renewable energy sources is a very smart thing to do, not doing so is a stupid thing to do, but I am not hopeful that our body politic will do the smart thing.

        I agree with Michael Marriotte that a renewable-powered electric grid is totally viable, speaking strictly from an engineering perspective. My doubt arises when considering the political and social change required for such a project, combined with the very long lead time required. Michael points out the biggest problem in this quote, “But that merely shows that not only must the technical nature of the grid change, and it can; but so must its economic nature, and it can too.” Michael, I completely agree!

        I strongly suspect that human psychological and social characteristics will combine to make actually reaching a viable continent-scale renewable grid quite unlikely. The economic changes required to make a renewable grid possible, at current scales of use, are diametrically opposed to the current economic system and where it’s headed. If we wait until the market signals that we must replace fossil energy with renewable energy then it is almost certainly too late to make this transition.

        I’m not saying that the project Michael proposes can not be done, I’m saying that it probably will not be done. Please be aware that there is a time deadline. Global net energy extracted from some fossil fuels, such as coal and oil, may already be in decline or nearly so. Global fossil net energy will almost certainly be in decline by 2030. All current economies depend upon continued exponential economic growth, which in turn depends upon continued exponential energy growth. Conservation and conquest of energy resources are linear phenomena, and can not long substitute for exponential growth.

        This all suggests that the nature of our current economy will change sometime in the not-very-distant future. This change will certainly involve reduced, not increased, energy flow compared to 2015. Our current system has too many vested interests to voluntarily change, so this change will perforce be under duress. Ongoing reduced systemic net energy flow almost certainly translates into systemic economic failure, because long term economic growth is not possible in this environment. Times of inclement systemic economic failure are not times when large, expensive, long term projects (such as building a renewable electric grid) are very likely to succeed.

        When will the next economic collapse occur? I don’t know. The facts strongly suggest, though, that it’s years out, rather than multiple decades out. Converting the current North American electric grid to be use primarily renewable energy is a very expensive multiple-decade project.

        In summary, I personally hope Michael Marriotte is correct, but it seems that the available factual evidence suggests this is unlikely. This is speaking from the perspective of a scientist who has studied the multiple complex systems in question. I very much hope my analysis is wrong. Thank you for your time and attention reading this.

      2. Michael Mariotte Post author

        Thank you for your comment. You’re quite correct: what can be done is not necessarily what will be done. After 30 years in this effort, I have seen enough victories that I remain enough of an optimist to believe that we can also meet the economic and political requirements needed to build a clean, sustainable and affordable energy system. And I do believe it is inevitable–but, again, you’re quite right that there are time factors involved. Inevitable does not necessarily mean timely enough. It will take a lot of knowledgeable, sustained, strategic and effective grassroots activism to get us where we need to go by the time we need to get there. NIRS does our very best to support that kind of activism every day–it’s why we exist. But we’re obviously small fish in the larger pond. We need to grow, our movement needs to grow. I believe we can get there, but it will take all of us–and then some–constantly educating, organizing and mobilizing to make it happen.

  3. Vaughn Fulkerson

    Green World is a wonderful outlet for overview and insight into our unsustainable, as it stands, energy grid in the States! I see much talk about ‘boycotting’ nuclear power in the anti-nuke organizations, but how would that work, or would it, in baseload grid systems that have a potpourri of sources? Energy companies such as Viridian and others tout their energy sources as being “green”, and use that claim to attract customers away from the large power companies. From what I can see however they are simply using the same brew of power from the grid with 20j% or so already being from renewables, and all that may be changing is the name on the top of the electricity bill. What are your views on this?

    Also, I would love to get potential examples of add-on services in a power package from future providers. Do you mean like bundle packages from cable-phone-internet suppliers?

    1. Michael Mariotte Post author

      You’re correct, it’s not technically possible to “boycott” nuclear power–except by installing your own rooftop solar with enough battery backup so that you never need to use utility power. But that’s beyond the means of most people today–though it will be much more common in five years. All electricity from the grid is a mixture, generated by numerous different sources. You can’t separate it out. You can, however, install rooftop solar and get most of your power from the sun–and in most places even force your utility to buy your excess power from you. You can, as I do, sign up with a provider who buys only wind power. That doesn’t change the electricity mix into your home, but it does mean your money, at least, is only going toward clean energy. You can get together with neighbors and, again in most places, set up a community solar system. As renewables get cheaper and more available commercially, there are more and more options to support clean energy and to use clean energy.

      Cable/phone/internet companies would be naturals to enter the electricity business, though antitrust concerns and high costs to enter the arena may keep them away. But yes, that’s the basic concept. The utility of the future may sell you electricity at the cost to produce it, but offer paid add-ons like smart systems that allow you to control electricity use in every part of your house, turn your lights on and off, turn your coffee machine on, etc (there are already smartphone apps that purport to do this, but my understanding is that they don’t work very well yet). Another potential add-on would be a solar-powered charging system for your electric car (again, already being offered to some extent). There are solar-powered floors in demonstration mode at a school in Indiana–as you walk on them, they generate electricity. Your utility may also become your renovated home’s flooring company. And things that haven’t even been imagined yet but one day we’ll wonder how we did without. Who knew the world wanted an iphone so badly that we’d pay $600+ for them even though you can buy a landline phone for $15 or so these days?

      Or perhaps it will work the other way: your electricity will continue to rise in price, but the other kinds of services will become free or very low-cost. The basic point is that the model of the 21st century utility is going to change, and drastically, and almost certainly over the next decade in the same way–but likely with even greater speed–that the communications industry has changed since the days of Ma Bell not so long ago.

      1. peter sipp

        Mr. Mariotte, you must have a magic carpet that you ride on to see the future like you do. Thank you SOOOO much for your 360* view. Best to you…ALWAYS.

  4. Pingback: The archaic nature of ‘baseload’ power | Eco Bio III Millennio

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