The Tyranny of Baseload

This is rather sobering: 

Global wind capacity increased an estimated 27,051 megawatts in 2008, ending the year at 120,798 megawatts (See Figures 1 and 2.) With cumulative installations up almost 29 percent, the growth rate exceeded the annual average of the past decade. Wind power accounted for 42 percent of new capacity additions in the United States (second only to natural gas for the fourth year running) and for 36 percent of new installations in Europe. The wind now generates more than 1.5 percent of the world’s electricity, up from 0.1 percent in 1997.

Ignoring the growth (from a low base), and the even larger rise in natural gas generation over the same period, the reality is that wind power generates a meaningless amount of electricity. And this is after several years of really spectacular growth in the installed capacity.

Previously i’ve concluded that our only hope of closing this gap between capacity and demand is a winning a bet on one of the means of fusion power. However, it occurs to me that there are several other choices that should be considered:

  • radically reduce the demand for electricity
  • find a way to break the centralised nature of our generating infrastructure

It should go without saying, but obviously i don’t hold out much hope of any of these scenarios playing out. The far more likely outcome is that we’ll continue to muddle along, plagued forever by our inability to overcome our instinctual greed, and desire to see ourselves ‘above nature’.  There, it has been said…

The circumstance under which there is a reduction in demand for electricity and breaking the centralised nature of our generating infrastructure appear to be related. With the means of production (urgh!) as they are currently managed there is very little motivation to reduce consumption: the same corporations as manufacture, say, white goods, also sell electricity generation equipment. Just to be clear, i’m not suggesting that there is a conspiracy at work here, these influences are at the (corporate / political) cultural level. Next time you hear a mainstream politician telling you that the economy is about the right size, or maybe a little too large, to operate sustainably, you let me know!

In addition, the expectation of permanent supply of electricity, distributed over a wide area, is taken for granted by society. It wouldn’t be surprising to hear it discussed in terms of being a ‘basic human right’. The very term that we use, “utility” betrays this, it’s just something that we use (Middle English utilite, from Old French, from Latin ūtilitās, from ūtilis, useful, from ūtī, to use.)

The organisation of society into blocks of significant size to be exploitable by corporations under a system of consolidation and ‘economy of scale’ would appear to have been a mistake. The infrastructure which we have built around us is now so expensive to amortise (more fun with etymology, Middle English amortisen, to alienate in mortmain, from Old French amortir, amortiss-, from Vulgar Latin *admortīre, to deaden : Latin ad-, ad- + Latin mors, mort-, death.) that it’s hard to consider alternatives.

The reason that we maintain baseload generation is that the consumers of the electricity at the nodes the distribution grid have ceded all control to the centre. Industrial usage may require the kind of 5 nines (i forget how many nines are really needed..) but is there any need for that cost to be born by society as a whole?

If we re-imagine the system decentralised and blown apart, with generation and storage distributed throughout, we end up with a system having some different properties. Storing energy at the nodes makes it possible to incorporate intermittent source of generation, with the peaks and troughs being smoothed out. Excess local capacity can be stored, and, when storage capacity is exceed, pushed back into grid to be stored elsewhere. This would make it possible to use a far more diverse set of generating sources. 

Storage doesn’t necessarily mean chemical batteries, although things like NH3 probably have role to play on some level. If the issues around small scale storage of hydrogen can be resolved (isn’t it just a materials problem?), local production of H2 by electrolysing waste water could be utilised in fuel cells, etc. Innovation on low loss energy transformation would become important.

There are perhaps two more radial ideas here:

  • an intermittent supply of electricity is acceptable in some cases. Or perhaps merely the introduction of it as a potential constraint would force society away from utilizing such wasteful designs. If you were building a fridge and had to include the possibility of intermittent electricity, would you start to care more about insulation and thermal mass? Appliances with constant draw, even when not being used, would become unthinkable.
  • nodes in the system which consumed more than they generated would be forced to either reduce their demands, or pay other nodes in the system for any excess capacity. The fundamental change being that the costs of higher demand would be born by the nodes using more than they are generating, and not the system as a whole.

[This has ended up being an unstructured collection of thoughts. These ideas occur to me during the week, and by the time my weekend writing time rolls around it all comes flooding out in an inarticulate deluge…]

6 thoughts on “The Tyranny of Baseload

  1. i’ll get working on a new system… should be with you in a couple of hundred years – if we make it that far.

  2. You might want to consider that the reason the way the electrical supply is the way it is came about because it is the lowest cost way to produce electricity. Why pay for intermittent solar at 3X the price of coal plus the required batteries when you can just plug into the grid?

    The best fusion alternative may get us fusion power plants in ten years or less:

    Bussard’s IEC Fusion Technology (Polywell Fusion) Explained
    Why hasn’t Polywell Fusion been fully funded by the Obama administration?

    • Coal is only cheap when you can ignore the external cost to society… if you can get rich poisoning future generations there is something very wrong.

      Fusion has always been 25 years away. It seems likely to me that it will become an experimentally possible process within 10 years, but the complexity is such that it will take a non-trivial amount of effort to build a meaningful amount of capacity.

      It’s amusing (to me) that you are dismissive of something as simple as solar, on the grounds that it’s too expensive, but willing to sign up for something as complex and yet unproven as fusion. Watch much science fiction as a kid?

  3. an intermittent supply of electricity is acceptable in some cases. Or perhaps merely the introduction of it as a potential constraint would force society away from utilizing such wasteful designs. If you were building a fridge and had to include the possibility of intermittent electricity, would you start to care more about insulation and thermal mass?

    Maybe. Or you might consider buying more refrigerators. Or more frequent trips to the store. Humans is crafty that way.

    • If by ‘crafty’ you mean ‘stupid’ i’m completely with you..

      Frankly, i don’t share, what i have the nerve to presume is, your vision of the future: more of what we have now!

      Thanks for the comments.

Wise words...

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