The Myth of Baseload Reliability




One of the most common arguments fossil-fuel industries use against renewable power is that it is "unreliable". "The wind doesn't blow all the time and the sun doesn't shine at night!" is the kind of phrase you're sure to hear if you debate the subject long enough.

These folks seem to think that everyone else must have somehow forgotten obvious things like nighttime. These statements always reminded me of the bogus arguments climate change deniers make. "It's the sun stupid!" is one of their favorite catch-phrases... as if all the world's climatologists had somehow forgotten to take the sun into account when making their calculations.

Of course the wind doesn't blow all the time and there's no sunlight at night, but this is not news to anyone. The people controlling electric grids (like Texas' ERCOT, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas) know full well the limitations and applications of all these different renewable technologies. We don't need as much power at night and wind forecasts are accurate days in advance - giving us plenty of time to plan around wind energy. Energy storage technology is also making breakthroughs all the time, and there are many technologies that could be used (and are being used) right now to store surplus renewable energy for later use.

The truth is that grid reliability issues are caused not by renewable energy, but by traditional, "baseload" facilities like coal, natural gas, and nuclear power plants. Take a year ago in Texas, for example, when ERCOT was forced into rolling blackouts due to weather conditions. People instantly started trying to blame wind power for this failure, but it quickly and clearly became evident that this was not the case. Even Master Resource, a "free-market energy blog" (yes, I'm quoting a "free-market" blog) said "Some wondered whether wind power was at fault, but wind contributed about seven percent of ERCOT’s power during the emergency – about the same as this time last year."

Robert Cervenka's ranch borders the Sandy Creek coal plant, which he fought against for many years.

Many other sources reported this truth as well. KERA out of North Texas reported Barry Smitherman, former chairman of the Texas Public Utilities Commission saying, "Had we not had that wind energy we would have gone dark." Even Trip Doggett, the CEO of ERCOT was quoted saying, "I would highlight that we put out a special word of thanks to the wind community because they did contribute significantly through this timeframe."

So what really caused these blackouts? Fifty (that's right, I said 50) of the state's power plants had suddenly gone offline due to weather conditions, largely because of improper weatherization. That included the "brand new" Oak Grove coal plant, a monstrous lignite-burner east of Waco that was granted a permit, despite a recommendation for denial by judges in a contested case hearing.

On top of all this we now have another newly constructed coal plant called Sandy Creek that is indefinitely offline due to... well actually we don't know why - the plant owners won't tell anyone. Apparently during start-up operations one of the boilers was "severely damaged." This article from NPR's State Impact has much more detail. So at a time when energy shortages are getting more and more likely, one of our newest and supposedly-reliable sources of power will be completely unavailable.

What makes sense given this history? To continue putting more and more of our eggs into the smelly, destructive, and wasteful basket of coal-fired power plants? Or should we invest our new infrastructure in diversifying our electric grid with renewable energy like energy efficiency programs, wind farms, solar panels, geothermal and more? Not only will this diversity increase reliability innately, but our reliance upon these historically unreliable baseload plants will be lessened.

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