September 26, 2017 by Denis Pombriant
Before we can think about changing the energy paradigm we need to take stock of what it does. Energy companies don’t need to do this, they’re very knowledgeable. But regular consumers may need some background. Let’s start with baseload power.
Simply put, baseload power is the minimum demand of a city or a region for power to heat, cool, and light its spaces, run appliances and machinery, and someday, to run electric cars, or at least charge them. Fossil fuels and other conventional generating resources like hydroelectric dams and nuclear plants are great at providing base-load power and their generating stations are always on. If they aren’t on, power companies work to have backup capacity. It’s expensive to do this since having extra capacity available incurs some cost and produces some pollution without an economic benefit other than providing a failsafe.
The most commonly understood alternative energy supplies are classified as intermittent. Sun and wind have their ups and downs; the wind doesn’t always blow with the same intensity and sometimes it doesn’t blow at all. Similarly, the sun doesn’t always shine (except in Philadelphia) so any scheme that relies on these alternatives has to account for fluctuations or have some form of redundancy built in.
For example, many utilities now get some portion of their generating capacity from gas turbines, which require little advance notice to turn on and add power to the grid. Gas turbines—think of a jet engine attached to a generator—are often used for peak demand because they can be ramped up quickly and be turned off when their capacities are no longer needed. In contrast, getting power from steam generators burning fossil fuels has a lag time built in by the need to burn fuel and boil water to make the steam that turns dynamos.
Power companies have become adept at building in redundancy and planning for demand using fossil fuels. Changing the energy paradigm will require different planning and different approaches. They’re all available today, but they’re not well known.
One solution to the intermittency problem is to build large storage facilities (which are essentially, big batteries), to hold onto generated power for later use. But as a practical matter the time when solar is strongest is during the workday, when we need peak power. So, charging batteries would be a matter of building extra capacity and capturing energy from small fluctuations in demand. That’s certainly possible but it comes with a cost for building some extra generating capacity and the storage facilities.
But there are at least two ways to generate baseload power using alternatives that seem very attractive. The first is geothermal power generation, which harvests the heat from the Earth’s crust to make steam and turn conventional generators. The second is to put solar collectors into space and literally beam the power down to Earth via microwaves or laser beams. Space Based Solar Panels (SBSP) aren’t thoroughly proven yet but for decades we’ve used a constellation of orbiting satellites to beam down other forms of electromagnetic radiation like TV shows, telephone, Internet services, and cell phone communications. Doing the same with energy isn’t going to be rocket science—except when we launch the solar arrays into orbit of course.
To net this out, baseload power generation is a serious concern and there are ways to cover that base using alternatives. So don’t let anyone tell you alternatives can’t compete or replace conventional electricity generation, they can.