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The myth of baseload power

by Nancy Reinhart — last modified Apr 17, 2012 02:10 PM

The article, "Why baseload power is doomed" by Chris Nelder gives an excellent rebuttal to a myth we hear commonly in Kentucky - that renewable energy cannot replace "baseload" electric power.

The author opens, "A persistent myth about the challenges of integrating renewable power into the grid is that because solar and wind are intermittent, grid operators need to maintain full generation capacity from “baseload” plants powered by coal and nuclear."

But, "The notion that renewables cannot provide baseload power is really an artifact of the way the grid and its regulators have evolved," he says.

(Baseload power generators are large units that provide most of the electricity to the grid. They rarely shut down, providing most of the "base load" of power, hence the name. In Kentucky, these are mostly coal-burning plants. When consumers draw more electricity from the grid than those plants can provide, utilities fire up additional units, usually fueled by natural gas, to provide the extra electricity needed to meet demand.)

In the article, the author describes why much of today's existing grid is not "smart." It grew up around demand, rather than in a planned, logical fashion. Lines went up haphazardly, starting in populations centers and then reaching out to rural areas as demand grew. As the grid grew, so did a very complex system of connecting and regulating it - one which includes several different agencies in each of several overlapping U.S. "grid territories."

This haphazard design makes grid technicians' jobs very tricky and makes them therefore resistant to the type of innovation that is required to bring large-scale renewable energy online.

"Grid operators have one overriding, fearsome task: They must maintain enough supply from this very complex system, within a narrow range of frequencies and voltages, to meet constantly fluctuating demand at all times. Therefore they tend to be risk-averse, preferring to stick with what they know to be reliable, and avoiding innovation.

Before the advent of renewables, generating power was a pretty straightforward task: When demand increased, you just added more fuel to an engine. With renewables, the task is reversed: The engines (wind turbines and solar collectors) ramp up and down of their own accord, and grid operators must adjust to accommodate their output."

So we need to get a smarter grid across the U.S. - one that provides real time information - and use the good models already out there to better predict how and when renewables will output power. It's a dance that we can master if we're willing to try.

"If all generators were able to ramp up and down on demand, and if grid operators were able to predict reliably when and where the sun would be shining and the wind would be blowing, accommodating any amount of power from renewables would be no problem."

Many states and countries successfully integrated large portions of renewable energy into the grid successfully. The author discusses several such examples including Germany and Texas. These places are proving and will continue to prove what is possible while places that hesitate to act are left behind.

We cannot ignore that some sectors of our economy stand to gain if we remain locked into the old system of electric power, but, Nelder says, the facts about what is technically possible remain firmly on the side of renewable energy supporters.

"The attachment to our antiquated architecture of power generation and grid management is simply a failure of imagination and innovation," Nelder concludes.

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