In a renewable world, baseload generation is redundant

By Giles Parkinson on 29 March 2012

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Energy Minister Martin Ferguson revealed the tenuous nature of his understanding of solar technologies in an interview on ABC TV’s 7.30 Report on Tuesday, referring to Solar Flagships projects as “solar baseload power.”

The Solar Flagships may be many things – big is one of them and possibly what Minister Ferguson meant. Or they may not be anything at all, given their problems in financing. But without storage one thing they certainly will not be is baseload. And even with storage, would solar ever work as baseload energy?

It is a common misconception, given that the energy grids for decades have been based on the principal of providing baseload energy, supplemented by peak-load power when demand is high. The question is often put: How could solar – or any other intermittent renewable ever be considered to be a source of baseload energy? According to the latest study produced by experts at the UNSW, it may not need to.

The study by the UNSW team of Ben Elliston, Mark Diesendorf and Ian McGill into how Australia’s National Electricity Market could cope with 100 per cent renewables suggests that the very concept of a baseload power station becomes redundant when fossil fuels are replaced with renewables.

The needs of the grid are met with large penetrations of variable renewable sources such as wind and solar, and topped up with solar storage acting as a form of peaking plant, and gas-turbines running on biofuels that perform a similar function. And, critically, by reducing peak demand through improved energy efficiency and better demand management.

The study, a simulation of 100 per cent renewable scenarios for the year 2010, using actual NEM demand data, weather observations and technologies that are in either mass production (wind, solar PV, hydro and biofuelled gas turbines), or limited production (such as concentrated solar thermal with thermal storage), shows that 100 per cent renewable energy is technically feasible.

It does, however, require a “radical 21st century re-conception” of an electricity supply demand-system. Instead of base-load coal, reliability is maintained with large penetrations of variable renewable sources from as great a diversity as possible, supported by a large array of “dispatchable” generators – be they turbines or storage.

“Nowadays, renewable energy deniers are almost as active in spreading misinformation as the deniers of anthropogenic climate change,” Diesendorf wrote recently. “One of their principal false claims is that renewable energy sources are too unreliable to form the basis of an energy system for an industrial society. In particular, they assert that renewable energy cannot supply base-load (24-hour) power and is only suitable for niche markets.” He says the UNSW research helps to refute these claims.

The next stage of the UNSW study will be analysing how much this will cost. Broader estimates produced by the International Energy Agency and the European Commission suggest that the final outcome of moving to renewables will be cost-neutral over the long term, and may even save money, but will likely cause a rise in costs over the short term because of new technologies and infrastructure investment. More critically, it will also send shockwaves through the energy industry as economics of fossil fuel generators is undermined, as they are already discovering in Germany and other places where renewable penetration is reaching 20 per cent or more.

The Australian Energy Market Operator has also been commissioned to paint two scenarios of reaching 100 per cent renewables by 2030 and 2050. It is expected to release the scope of that inquiry in coming weeks.

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