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A View from the Altar / Baseload power and AA batteries
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Baseload power and AA batteries

The term “baseload” has become common in energy parlance.  It refers to a mimimum amount of electrical energy usage that never goes away.  In the United States, the baseload demand is a fantastically large amount of power — something like 500 million horsepower.  This is the amount of power the electric industry is supplying even on the easiest days when nobody is home.

Why so much?  Because a large percentage of America’s electric demand is comprised of loads that never change.  Big factories run day and night.  There are some factories that consume more than the output of an entire power plant.  Hospitals and similar facilities never shut down.  Shopping malls, skyscrapers, and huge office buildings have cooling and heating systems that have to run continuously.  Government is a big part of America’s electrical load, and facilities such as air traffic control systems and military bases cannot be easily shut down.  When you add up all this power, it’s a bunch.

People outside the energy industry have no feel for the size of this power demand and generally don’t care to.  It’s beyond their experience, so they leave it to power company experts to do their thing.  As long as the lights stay on and the price stays reasonable, they’re okay with it.  This is what baseload generation does.  It supplies America’s truly giant energy needs day and night, regardless of weather, regardless of what OPEC does, does it reliably for every customer from the White House to the trailer house, and all for a low and stable price.

But this is where the ignorance of our political class threatens to do catastrophic harm to the nation. The boutique energy solutions so dear to the leftists in charge of the country simply cannot carry the freight.  You cannot pack a mastodon into a Yugo, not even if President Obama orders it to cross its legs.  Politicians do not recognize this because too many of them have no background for it and are not listening to those who do.  Jon Wellinghoff, the new chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, is a lawyer.  Nothing against lawyers, but he is simply not equipped to understand the energy business.  This is why he can be so confident saying that new energy sources need not be baseload quality sources.  Mr. Wellinghoff is not a moron.  He just talks like one because he’s committed himself to an ideologically obsessed administration and isn’t listening to people who know the energy industry.

Here’s some reality.  For an energy source to be a serious player in the overall energy mix, it must do two things.  First, it’s got to make a measurable blip on the total quantity of baseload, and second, it must be able to displace some of the baseload generation.  This means it has to be big, and it has to operate reliably 24/7/365 regardless of the weather, fuel situations, prices, railroad strikes, or whatever.  This is what Americans expect from the power company: The power stays on.  If an energy source doesn’t displace baseload generation, then it adds cost and puts a drag on reliability.

Trendy green power supplies being proposed by the energy-ignorant political class are 1) dramatically too small, and 2) not baseload capable supplies.  Power derived from the sun, wind, waves and tides, geothermal sources, manure gases, switchgrass, pulverized garbage, chicken litter, and wired-up hamsters all put together accounts for a scant few percent of America’s energy needs.  They’re just too small.  Even all put together, they don’t make a respectable dent in it.  As I’ve written before, they’re like driving a freight train with an entire shopping cart full of AA batteries.  It looks like a lot of batteries… until you see the train.

The two biggest contributors are wind and solar, and these cannot displace baseload generation for the simple reason that they cannot operate continuously.  If the wind stops in the middle of the night, all that generation drops to zero.

The inability to displace baseload generation, by the way, is the never-discussed Achilles heel of using conservation measures to offset demand growth.  Conservation measures include things like installing demand management gadgets such as “smart” electric meters or just preaching conservation to the public.  But the day will come when all those conscientious power savers will forget and flip all their lights on at the same time.  If the demand exceeds the supply, part of the grid is going to get blacked out.

What’s needed is an energy policy that demotes “green” from a religion to a mere feature.  This requires an adult understanding that the green feature is very expensive and has to be paid for with something better than political bloviating about “green jobs.”   And our green ideology needs to be measured against the hard engineering facts of the size of America’s energy industry.  The Obama administration’s first 100 days are not promising in this regard.

otherbrothersteve@gmail.com

5 Comments

  1. Dad

    sent to whitehouse, Ross, Lincoln and Pryor

    Posted on 26-Apr-09 at 19:54 pm | Permalink
  2. That makes sense as far as infrastructure, but what do you think of the idea of individuals and families coming up with a way of generating their own power? That’s something we’re interested in doing.

    Posted on 02-May-09 at 20:41 pm | Permalink
  3. admin

    Kelly,

    I think it’s a great idea and one more people should adopt for reasons of self-sufficiency. That’s especially true here in hurricane-prone Florida. We just have to go into the project knowing a couple of things in advance. First, the power company is so cheap that nobody has yet figured out a way to compete with them on price. Mr. Obama’s policies may change that in the near future, however. Second, unless you go into it on a mega-dollar scale, home generation will probably be severely limited on how many appliances you can run at the same time. If you get a little 10 kw generator at Home Depot, you can run the fridge and freezer, a few lights, etc. You probably can’t run the electric hot water heater.

    One final caution: Make sure your home generator is totally disconnected from the power grid. Otherwise you could destroy your generator or, worse, kill a lineman if he’s unaware the wires are being powered from a source he didn’t know about.

    Bro. Steve

    Posted on 03-May-09 at 8:12 am | Permalink
  4. Thanks for the tip.

    Of course it requires a lifestyle change — we’d have to eliminate as many electical appliances as possible. The house we’re renovating will have a propane stove and water heater, which is a bit of compromise, but it keeps us from being dependent on electricity, and in a remote location if your power goes out, it’ll likely be out for days at a time.

    Also we’re looking for ideas to use if we’re able to build a house (can’t remember if I’ve mentioned this at ABC, but the house we’re renovating is only 1000 square feet, so we hope to build something a little more suitably sized for a large family), like passive cooling. A friend told me of an antebellum house they lived in in Louisiana that had ducts running from the basement and kept the house cool. Things like that.

    What we’re trying to do is to come up with low-tech solutions, because anything high-tech is still going to require expensive manufacturing. Reminds me of these “green” hybrid cars that run on a little fuel, but whose manufacturing process uses up bajillions of gallons of petroleum. Kind of silly.

    Posted on 03-May-09 at 18:50 pm | Permalink
  5. admin

    Progress Energy recently pulled a fast one in the PR department. A local customer installed a 5 KW rooftop solar electric system at a cost of about $50,000. Progress put them on the front page and trumpeted forth in glory. The real motive behind the story, I suspect, is that even a very modestly sized solar device of 10 to 15 KW could easily double the price of your home. The utility is just that much cheaper.

    Propane is great fuel — I’ve thought about switching one of my cars over to it, but it’s a lot harder to do now that everything is fuel injected. Best thing about propane is it’s super clean burning. Prices don’t seem to swing quite as far as they do with gasoline. The only drawback is the energy density isn’t quite what you get with gasoline or diesel, so it takes a bigger tank to get the same mileage.

    Stop by now and then and let us know how your project is going.

    Bro. Steve

    Posted on 03-May-09 at 19:02 pm | Permalink

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