Skip to main content

Baseload power is possible with renewables!

6.75 KW array, with geoexchange, brings a check every month
This 6.75 KW array brings the owner a check every month from Xcel energy, in Grand Junction

One of the big criticisms energy pundits like to lord around to thwart renewable alternatives is the no baseload power clause.  The argument goes something like this:

“Yeah, solar power is great.  But the sun doesn’t shine all the time.”  Or, “You can’t power America on windmills.” 

These statements are shocking in their simplicity (and incorrectness – windmills don’t create power, turbines do).  And yet so many fall prey to the image of green energy as some sort of hippie madness, an energy that can only assist in bringing the old, black-smoke-radioactive-powerhouse of diesel-manliness to fruition.

Not only are these opinions short-sighted (there are actually other renewable energy technologies out there aside from solar and wind), they are unscientific and myopically entrenched in a backwards, out-of-date ideology.

Geothermal energy is the poster child of baseload power.  Baseload power means power that’s always available, whenever you turn on the switch.  Even though most power stations idle down, and essentially waste power when not used (they’re still burning coal), proponents of yesterday’s energy agenda can’t quite open their eyes to the fact.  Geothermal is the most unexplored resource in the United States.  In Colorado there is ample supply of heat beneath the Earth’s surface to power cities.  With binary-systems (which use a fluid with a low boiling point in the Rankine cycle) even low-level heat anomalies could generate ‘steam’.  That puts San Miguel County squarely on the map.  Tell that to Tristate.

Moreover, tidal power is essentially baseload.  Ask the fishermen on Discovery’s “Deadliest Catch” if the tide ever stops.  They’d laugh, and slap you in the face.

Better yet, solar can be baseload power if managed correctly.  How?  Thermal storage.  Not all solar power is photovoltaic.  There is also concentrated solar power, power derived from focusing the sun’s beams to generate heat.  This heat can be stored in a variety of ways, and discharged (to generate steam) when the sun is not shining. 

Of course, you can also use things like, er, batteries to store the electrical charge for later use.  Go figure.

Perhaps the best way to store solar energy, though, is via hydrogen.  Electrolyzing the water molecule into hydrogen and oxygen takes a lot of energy – energy used when the sun is shining.  Reoxidizing the hydrogen into water liberates this same amount of energy.  Better yet, shipping hydrogen to end-users is more efficient:  nearly 7% of electricity generated by coal, for example, is lost during transmission from the plant to the home.  Hydrogen is a gas – or a liquid – it can be piped with much higher efficiency to the end user.

Oddly, to the nay-sayers, the wind is faulty.  It’s inconstant, they say.  And yet, it’s always day somewhere on Earth, and always night.  The differential of heat between these conditions creates flows of energy that manifest as wind.  Up there, where you see the clouds moving, it’s always windy.  Wind is baseload, we just haven’t mastered capturing it yet.

Ultimately the dirty secret is power generation and transmission companies have enduring contracts with their fossil fuel suppliers.  They don’t want to change because, more often than not, they own these suppliers.  Fossil fuel, though, is just that.  It’s a fuel that’s based on extinction.

The only limit to garnering baseload power from renewable resources is vision.  If you can only see what yesterday has enforced, or what somebody wants you to buy, you’ll never see the future.  You’ll be condemned to live in the past.


  • Darryl Duffe 5 years ago

    Nice commentary... but the picture doesn't put the best foot forward for renewables. Why shoot yourself in the foot with bad aesthetics? A lot of people will simply object to houses that look like something landed on their roof. Use a picture where the system and the house were designed together and fit the site and it doesn't have to be a McMansion.... But otherwise spot on.

  • John Buckley 5 years ago

    While I agree with the thrust of your article - that there are renewable options we should consider in addition to wind and solar, there are some misstatements that undermine some steps in your analysis. For example, you tend to use the word baseload, when I think "dspatchability" is the concept you are describing. A Baseload plant is one operated to take all or part of the minimum continuous load of a system and which produces electricity at an essentially constant rate. These plants are operated to maximize system mechanical and thermal efficiency and minimize operating costs. Accordingly this class of electric generation is usually represented by nuclear and coal simply becuase they do not follow load well. As you correctly point out if you were to "idle down" these plants, they would not be as efficient. Therefore, they are used to balance the constant minimum "base load." The cyclical "swing" part of the load is met by disptachable rampable generation - usually gas and hydro.

  • Ken Monroe 5 years ago

    The batteries you discuss in relation to solar power, how cost prohibitive are they and how do they effect the overall cost of the power? Are they so expensive that many companies have not moved to this power for that reason?