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).