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Amory Lovins vs. Stewart Brand - Part Two (The "Baseload Myth")

Continuing on Friday’s critique of Amory Lovins’ latest study, our following post delves into discussing if wind and solar are baseload technologies. Funny enough, Lovins’ rebuttal of this myth completely misinterpreted what Stewart Brand said about baseload in his nuclear chapter and apparently ended up agreeing with Brand in one case.

The “baseload myth”

Here’s the quote from Brand’s book that the Lovins study has a problem with (p. 80 and 81):

“’Baseload,’” she [Gwyneth Cravens] explains in the book, “refers to the minimum amount of proven, consistent, around-the-clock, rain-or-shine power that utilities must supply to meet the demands of their millions of customers.”

Wind and solar, desirable as they are, aren’t part of baseload because they are intermittent—productive only when the wind blows or the sun shines. If some sort of massive energy storage is devised, then they can participate in baseload; without it, they remain supplemental, usually to gas-fired plants.

This claim is “fallacious” according to Lovins, yet Lovins’ six-page rebuttal (p. 5-10) to Brand’s quote doesn’t even make the claim that wind and solar are baseload, only that the two intermittent technologies can be successfully integrated into the grid. Brand didn’t say wind and solar can’t contribute to the grid, he only said they’re just not baseload technologies. Apparently, that wasn’t clear to Lovins, but what Brand says is clear to me and even to the wind folks who put together an analysis of how wind could possibly get to 20% of the US’ electricity by 2030 (p. 89):

The units with the highest capacity factors—nuclear (75% CF) and coal (62% and 71% CF)—are the workhorses of the system because they produce relatively low-cost baseload energy and are fully dispatchable. [emphasis added] Wind (30% CF) and hydro (27% CF) generate essentially free energy, so the wind is taken whenever it is available (subject to transmission availability) and the hydro is scheduled to deliver maximum value to the system (to the extent possible). The plants with the lowest capacity factors (combined cycle, combustion turbines, and oil- and gas-fired steam boilers) are operated as peaking and load-following plants and essential capacity resources.

This quote confirms exactly what Brand is saying about baseload and it’s coming from the technology’s own promoters. As well, on page 9, the Lovins study said this:

capacity factor averaged 35–37% for 2004–08 U.S. wind projects, is typically around 30–40% in good sites, and exceeds 50% in the best sites. Proven and cost effective bulk power storage is also available if needed. [emphasis added]

Wait, Stewart Brand said wind and solar CAN be baseload if “some sort of massive energy storage is devised.” Is Lovins confirming Brand’s claim here by saying that “bulk power storage” can supplement wind if needed? What does Lovins mean here by “if needed”? Here, the Lovins study again misinterpreted what Brand had to say about energy storage and looks like ended up agreeing with Brand in this case.

As well, Lovins exaggerates the performance of wind here. According to his source (p. 40), wind’s capacity factor has ranged between 35-37% when in fact the average has been declining every year over the past four years.

Lovins goes on to praise the virtues of solar while again not even rebutting Brand’s claim that solar is not baseload. Here are several nuggets from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation report on integrating solar and wind (pdf) that confirm Brand’s and Craven’s definition that solar is not baseload:

(p. 25) Under certain weather conditions, PV installations can change output by +/- 70% in a time frame of two to ten minutes, many times per day.

(p. 27) PV systems can experience variations in output of +/- 50% in to 30 to 90 second time frame and +/- 70% in a five to ten minute time frame. Furthermore, the ramps of this magnitude can be experienced many times in a single day during certain weather conditions.

This solar variability is not a characteristic of baseload electricity, which Brand and Cravens describe as “consistent, around-the-clock.” Yet again, the Lovins study didn’t even bring up this variability of solar and sidetracked with a bunch of stats that don’t go to rebut Brand. Lovins also cited this same NERC report yet cherry-picked it only for a piece of data related to energy storage.


After wasting six pages of space attempting to rebut Brand, the Lovins study didn’t even make the case that wind and solar are baseload. The study did make the case that wind and solar can be integrated highly into the grid, even as much as nuclear. Yet, anyone who’s read the latest NERC report on integrating high levels of variable technologies (pdf) knows they have to take Lovins’ claims with a grain of salt. That’s because the NERC report asked way more questions than it had answers to when discussing how to integrate variable technologies.

NERC is currently researching and formulating ways on how to integrate wind and solar. According to their latest assessment report from last month, though, the variable technologies are having a bit of a tough time reliably integrating large amounts of capacity into the grid (start with page 31 to see what I mean, pdf).

As the wind report cited by both Lovins and me stated quite clearly, nuclear and coal “are the workhorses of the system because they produce relatively low-cost baseload energy and are fully dispatchable.” Variable technologies aren’t even described as workhorses yet even by the technology’s own promoters. Thus, it’s quite a bit premature on Mr. Lovins’ part to declare that variable technologies “properly used, can actually become major or even dominant ways to displace coal and provide stable, predictable, resilient, constant-price electricity.”

The next piece from us to look out for in response to Lovins’ latest claims will be on the need for all emission-free technologies to mitigate climate change (or at least the need for nuclear).


Gwyneth Cravens said…
Lack of knowledge about baseload may be the biggest reason people imagine that wind and solar can replace nuclear and fossil fuel power. It makes economic sense for wind entrepreneurs, who will make money whether or not turbines are up and running, to keep people misinformed.

Unfortunately, the people who appear to be most worried and the most indignant about global warming and ocean acidification turn out to support fossil fuel combustion instead of nuclear power. They do this by providing cover for limited, intermittent power sources that always require back-up, usually from gas-fired plants. The head of the Sierra Club recently endorsed natural gas, a terrible greenhouse gas and, from an extraction point of view, very polluting.

More thanks, David.
Anonymous said…
The graphic doesn't agree with the Energy Information Agency data on wind capacity factor. EIA calculates it at about 25%.

AWEA will howl and claim over 30% but who do you trust? At the Altamont Pass near San Francisco, the number of abandoned in place wind mills would argue for the lower figure.

Joseph Somsel
perdajz said…
Along the lines of Mr. Somsel's comment, 75% is a very low number for nuclear plant capacity factor. Even 90% would be conservatively low.
Robert said…
Joseph, I believe that those abandoned wind turbines at Altamont are early generation models that are scheduled to be replaced with current models.

Remember, Altamont was wind turbine kindergarten. Many a bad idea was tried and tossed at Altamont.
David Bradish said…
perdajz, yes, the 75% capacity factor is much too low for nuclear. When looking further in the study, that number was based on a handful of Midwestern nuclear plants for a comparison to wind.
Anonymous said…
When looking further in the study, that number was based on a handful of Midwestern nuclear plants for a comparison to wind.

Anti-nuclear zealots cherry-picking their data? Say it ain't so!
Gene Preston said…
In 2006 west TX wind had a CF of 33% and in 2007 it dropped to 25%. The reason was that the wind just didn't blow as much in 2007. Also, if you are going to supply X MW of base load power at night time, and wind CF approx one third, then you would have to have more than 3X the total wind capacity across the US of the total base load to be served in the US and connecting transmission lines to handle that higher power level. So if the US has a night time base load of 30,000 MW in ERCOT, 40,000 MW in WECC, and 300,000 MW in the eastern grid, you would have to have a total wind capacity of about 400,000 MW times 3 or 1,200,000 MW of wind to even have a minimal chance of supplying reliable base load power from wind. That's 800,000 GE type 1.5 MW wind generators. And the transmission to deliver this power would be horrendous. California and Texas would each have to install three times its base load of wind and be able to export its 2/3rds requirement of that power out of their states. So Texas would have to install 90,000 MW of wind and be able to export 60,000 MW of it as it was consuming the other 30,000 MW. This amount of power would require an unimaginable amount of new transmission line capacity. Since this amount of transmission is just not going to happen, neither will the wind happen that will allow wind to supply reliable base load power. Therefore it will be impossible to supply reliable base load power from wind because of that 1/3rd fickle factor of wind. This problem might be overcome with local energy storage, but that also has high costs. Here in Texas we have only battery storage as an option, hydro is not an option, so the cost of batteries for 60,000 MW and one week's storage is 60e9(1$/w)+(30e9)(.4)(24)(7)= ~$2e12 or two trillion dollars or $2000 billion dollars or $2 million million dollars. Get the point?
Anonymous said…
Where are you getting your batteries for storage in this cost scenario, retail over the counter from Radio Shack?

Could you please provide the document/source for the cost of battery storage, and put the formula in a more comprehensible form so each of its elements is clearer? Maybe labels for each element? Thanks.

Maybe someone else can answer this question more generally: How much does battery storage cost, per kw-h?
Joffan said…
Gene, your analysis is still too optimistic for wind. "Averaging out" only happens on a relative scale - there is still ever-growing absolute variability when more wind farms are added to system. Assuming the best case that output from different wind farms is independent, guaranteeing pure wind baseload requires an overbuild of about 10 times required baseload. Only then can you be reasonable confident that the minimum generation levels will meet baseload requirements 98% of the time.

I rate wind as a good supplementary source for hydro. If every reservoir had a wind farm of approximately the same power output as the dam, you would effectively have increased the total power capability of that source by 30%, without transmission overhead.

As a balanced source for wind capacity, I looked at the Spanish grid operators report for 2008. From an installed base of 15GW (14.1 rising to 15.9), wind generated 31.4 TWh, for an average of 3.58 GW. That's a capacity factor of 24%, across a range of ages and sites, and just about constant for the last five years.
Robert said…
Gene - In west Texas you have underground rock and aquifer sites and in the eastern part you have salt cavern sites for CAES. You clearly have storage options other than batteries.

Wind with CAES storage should cost about $0.13 per kWh.

Some battery price data - in 2006 vanadium redox flow batteries -

"As an approximate cost, systems are priced between $350-$600 per kWh, sizes ranging from a few hundred kW's to MW size systems. As the size of the system in kWh increases, the cost per unit decreases significantly.

For example, a system rated at 100MWh would have an installed cost of about $325 per kWh. The incremental cost of storage for large systems is approximately $150 per kWh."
Great article!... thanks for your information on NEI Nuclear Notes... keep posting...
perdajz said…
The argument that storage makes wind power useful or even competitive is specious. Wind power advocates confound generation, storage and distribution to cover up the simple fact that wind is poor at generation. Electricity from any source can be stored just the same. Massive storage would be a boon to the nuclear power industry, so much so that no other source would be needed. If I have a black box that can store truly massive amounts of electricity (say enough for a city of 1 million for one month), I will charge it using a nuclear power plant because that is the best way to generate large amounts of electricity in the first place.
Anonymous said…
I did a piece over on EnergyPulse looking at the costs of storage. The basic formula shows that storage capacity favors nuclear and coal and disadvantages wind and solar. The advocates of the latter should be careful what they wish for.

Actual grid experience confirms this analysis as pumped storage is usually built in conjunction with nuclear power plants.

Joseph Somsel
perdajz said…
Thanks Joseph. I went back and took a look.

I think wind and solar fans make a similarly specious argument about transmission. You know, stuff like "imagine wind from the Dakotas power Chicago" or "solar power from the deserts of Africa lighting up Europe".

If transmission distances are increased to thousands of miles, nuclear power in a location favorable to nuclear power can then compete with other sources anywhere. Imagine nuclear power from France transforming Africa. Imagine nuclear power from Florida lighting NYC. Imagine Russia build scores of reactors in its remote regions to power the rest of Europe. Or China with the rest of Asia.
David B. Benson said…
According to World Nuclear News, the US fleet of 100+ operating nuclear power plants (NPPs) averaged a capacity factor of 91--92% throughout 2011.

The wind turbines for which Bonneville Power Administration is the balancing agent averaged a capacity factor of 26% through the end of 2011. The Columbia Basin wind generation potential is nominally 30%.

Pumped hydro was originally installed in the USA so the (then new) NPPs could run flat out. Pumped hydro can, of course, be energized from any source and with current federal government incentives to NPPs and wind farms, wind generation has the lower LCOE of the two. However, blocking highs seem to be persisting a bit longer I think. That means there may be essentially no wind for 8 weeks. Power grid planners must be aware of this limitation on wind generators and establish sufficient reserves of dispatchable generation.

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