February 18, 2021

Advocating for a carbon/nuclear “base-load” is the last gasp of a dying argument

Former Texas governor Rick Perry was quoted recently saying that “We need to have a base-load. And the only way you can get a base-load in this country is [with] natural gas, coal, and nuclear.” A similar argument recently appeared in oilprice.com where the “base-load” provided by nuclear fuel was identified as an essential part of any power grid.

Citing the necessity of maintaining a base-load is the new defense of carbon and nuclear energy ever since these energy sources started becoming more expensive than renewable energy.

The concept of a utility base-load comes from the 20th-Century when coal was the least expensive form of energy (this statement ignores the environmental damage caused by the extraction, transportation, refinement and consumption of carbon). The base-load concept also comes from the technical nature of coal. A coal-fired plant cannot be turned up and down in response to changes in power demand. Either the plant is online or offline with the largest plants taking up to 3-days to come back online. As such, coal is always “on” providing the majority of power. During times of peak demand, gas-fired “peaker-plants” can quickly come online to satisfy short term power needs.

The above scenario revolves around the concepts of “transportable energy” and “local generation.” When the US grid was built, the only high voltage transportation technology available was High Voltage Alternating Current (HVAC). The problem with HVAC is that it is very inefficient when moving power over long distances. As such, the focus was on raw energy that could be easily transported for local generation and distribution. You can still drive around many working-class suburbs of Chicago and spend what seems like an eternity waiting for the coal train to pass.

HVDC Plus technology is used to convert the AC current generated in a wind farm into low-loss DC current (photo: Siemens AG)

The above energy distribution concept is over a half-century out of date. In the 1960s, the publicly owned Los Angels Department of Water and Power built the nation’s first High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) intertie that to this day brings power 940-miles south from the John Day Dam on the Columbia River to the county of Los Angeles. Ever since, LA County has been importing over 50% of its power from out-of-state hydro. During California’s rolling blackouts of 2001, Los Angeles County never lost power. China has built multiple thousands of miles of HVDC to connect hydro resources in the west to population centers in the east.

HVDC allows high voltage power to be transported over long distances with virtually no loss as compared with double digit losses that result from transporting power using HVAC. This means that portability of carbon and nuclear fuel is no longer an advantage. It no longer matters where the power is generated as it can be transported efficiently to where it is needed using HVDC.

Being able to move electricity without concern of where it is generated allows for a grid that no longer focuses on a base-load and can now focus on “balancing” power. This is a fundamental game-changer for the utility power industry as it all but eliminates the need for carbon and nuclear power. Now, all of our nation’s renewable energy can be integrated into a national grid using HVDC.

Balancing the grid means drawing on solar from the southwest deserts, wind from the central plains and hydro from the northwest.

What we tend to forget is that deserts offer more than just sun, they also offer large differences in elevation at steep angles. These steep differences in elevation can be used for gravity storage, a form of mechanical energy storage where a closed liquid loop uses sunlight to pump water up during the day and releases water down at night to run turbines that generate electricity. This means that some of the desert can be used to serve daytime use and another part can be used for nighttime use. Now the nation’s evening hours can be served by wind, hydro and desert gravity storage.

The next time you hear someone saying that we need carbon and nuclear power for a base-load, push back and explain how, with HVDC, the entire concept of base-load is archaic. What we need is a national HVDC grid that combines all of our nation’s abundant sources of renewable energy.

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