“Base Load Power” a Convenient Myth for Fossil Fools

March 7, 2016


Last week, leading lights of the global fossil power industry gathered at a conference in Houston, Texas, for CERA, known in the sector as the “Davos of Energy”. They reportedly got the shock of their professional careers.

They had invited the most senior executives from the biggest network owner (Chine State Grid Corp) in the biggest energy market in the world (China). The organisers fully expected their Chinese guest to endorse the “all of the above” marketing pitch, which is underpinning the “keep coal” campaign.

No such luck. Despite prodding by leading oil industry commentator Daniel Yergin, the chairman of State Grid Liu Zhenya reportedly said the “fundamental solution was to accelerate clean energy, with the aim of replacing coal and oil.”

Gasp number one. And then to more stunned silence, he and State Grid’s R&D chief Huang Han dismissed coal’s claim to be an indispensable source of “base load” generation.

As the network operator builds out its clean power sources, they noted, coal-fired generators could only serve as “reserve power” to supplement renewables.

“The only hurdle to overcome is ‘mindset’,” Liu said. “There’s no technical challenge at all.”

Here, video from 2012.  Amory Lovins of Rocky Mountain Institute states his perspective on the base load power myths, while another analyst argues a bearish case against solar/renewables.  The last 3 years of history tend to support Lovins case.

RenewEconomy again:

The “base load” mindset, though, is a pretty big and powerful hurdle. Across the world it infests incumbent utilities, the coal and nuclear lobbies, conservative politicians, energy regulators, and many in mainstream media, who are clinging to the concept of “base load generation” as the last resort to try to ridicule wind, solar and other technologies.

In Australia, which has more coal generation as a percentage of its energy supply than any other developed country, this perpetuation of this idea has reached fever pitch, particularly with the imminent exit of the large coal-fired power station in South Australia.

But according to Tim Buckley, from the Institute of Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, the idea of “base load” generation as an essential part of the energy mix is becoming redundant, and turning into a myth dreamed up by the fossil fuel industry to protect its interests.

“It’s as dangerous as the marketing term of “clean coal” and the idea that coal is “good for humanity”,” Buckley says.

New data bears this out. In China, thermal power plant utilisation rates (capacity factors) declined from 56.2 per cent on average in 2014 to a record low of just 50.9 per cent in 2015.

“This highlights coal is not ‘base load’, even in China,” Buckley says. “It is the marginal source of supply. Coal-fired power plants aren’t designed to run only half the time, but that is what is happening in China, and increasingly that is occurring in India as well.”

Indeed, CLP, the Hong Kong-based owner of the Yallourn and Mt Piper coal-fired power stations in Australia, revealed this week that its “flagship” Jhajjar coal plant in India ran at a capacity factor of just 49.9 per cent in 2015.

In Australia, it was even worse. The 1,400MW Mt Piper power station near Lithgow in NSW operated at just 45 per cent of its capacity, even after its neighbouring Wallerawang coal plant had been shut down.

Other black coal generators have been similarly afflicted, so much so that the Northern power station in South Australia is to shut permanently in May.

Grid operators also understand this. The head of UK’s National Grid says that “centralised energy” will soon be a thing of the past. The Australian Energy Market Operator says that the exit of “base load” coal generation in South Australia should not impact reliability or security of supply.

It does mean that supply it is dependent on other factors, including a connector to the main grid, but also a “different way of doing things.” Culture, not technology, is the biggest challenge here.

A study by energy consultant Energeia suggests that wind energy will become the default “base load” generation in South Australia, and dispatchable power sources – which previously dominated the grid, the markets and the business models – will have to fill in the gaps left by wind and solar.

The study conducted on behalf of South Australia transmission network operator ElectraNet, and released in December, illustrated a range of scenarios that suggested there was no room for “base load” generation.

And it wasn’t needed. The gaps would be filled by flexible plant such as solar towers, or battery storage, or from gas – as long as it can compete with the new technologies.



10 Responses to ““Base Load Power” a Convenient Myth for Fossil Fools”

  1. I saw an article recently that made the case that super cheap grid storage was just around the corner, and it wasn’t from any new breakthrough technology, it would be coming from used EV batteries. (I can’t remember where I saw this, I read lots of cleantech articles and they all blur together)

    The basic idea was that a significant amount of used EV batteries will become available soon, and these can be used for super cheap grid storage because a battery that’s degraded to 60-70% is no good for a car, but is completely fine for grid storage. Even a small portion of the existing Nissan LEAF batteries amounts to hundreds of MWh of storage capacity.

    That could go a long way to fill in the dispatchable gaps needed to work around solar and wind.

  2. Tom Bates Says:

    You expect a chinese government official to say something other than the party line at a conference? China has a pollution problem and is solving it by building nuclear plants, the schedule is about one a week for the next twenty years. The renewal gambit is the parties answer to being seen off shore as responsible and hip. Nevermind every single solar manufacture is in trouble and is held up by free government money

  3. Bates, when making a point using numbers at least attempt to use plausible numbers. According to Forbes and the Paulson Institute, China plans to build 7 nuclear power plants per year for the next 20 years. China’s current annual energy production growth rate for nuclear is 29.9% of current 40GW, wind 26.4% of current 100GW, solar 89.5% of current 21GW, hydro 5.7% of current 290GW.

  4. kap55 Says:

    Well, sorry, but just because China is abandoning coal, that doesn’t mean it’s abandoning baseload — by which I mean dispatchable — power. China is going full speed ahead with wind and solar, but it’s also going full speed ahead with nuclear, and the investment numbers indicate that in the long term nuclear will be bigger than either wind or solar there. And China is also the world leader in hydroelectricity with a whopping 24% of the world total.

    There are about a dozen nations that have achieved 90% or more non-fossil electricity already, and not one of them has done so without dispatchable baseload. The recipe is simple: hydro and geothermal where available, wind and solar no greater than the curtailment point, and nuclear for the rest.

    And I flatly predict that no nation anywhere on earth will be able to achieve 90% or greater non-fossil power without substantial contributions from “baseload” sources of geothermal, hydro, and nuclear, without substantial power imports.

  5. j4zonian Says:

    It’s amazing to me that people who are against renewables so often are seen shuffling hydro back and forth wherever it’s convenient for them to keep it, between renewable, mysteriously (and I’m sure, unconsciously) non-renewable, and something that apparently is neither, even several times in one post. Their denial that renewables can do the job depends (in their deluded minds) on not having any dispatchable renewable, so whenever the need arises, suddenly hydro is magically not renewable! Seconds later, of course, reality intrudes so hydro suddenly reverts to being renewable. But it’s not wind or solar so it can’t possibly be what we mean when we say “renewable”. Next sentence… magically renewable again. Water’s an amazing substance, isn’t it?

    Real dispatchable energy: Hydro, including micro-hydro and in the US some of the thousands of dams that exist but aren’t producing power, plus enormous geothermal resources, plus 24/7 solar thermal, plus waste biomass, plus ACES, plus passive and active solar buildings with thermal mass for storage, plus EVs (especially public EVs) as mobile batteries, plus batteries, plus pumped storage, plus distributed generation, plus demand response, plus local and regional tailoring of the mix of renewables, plus efficiency, conservation, wiser and more ecological lives…

    • Gingerbaker Says:

      ” Next sentence… magically renewable again. Water’s an amazing substance, isn’t it?”

      In Mr Bates’ case, its not about water being magical or about difficulties with semantics. The problem is that he can’t keep his lies straight. Which is not at all surprising, considering the magnitude of scale involved.

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