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Debunking Three Myths About “Baseload”

Miles Farmer's picture
Clean Energy Attorney NRDC

Working with the Sustainable FERC Project and the NRDC's Eastern Energy team, Miles Farmer focuses on making our electricity grid cleaner and more efficient. Prior to joining NRDC, he was an...

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  • Jul 10, 2017

An NRDC Expert Blog by Kevin Steinberger & Miles Farmer

At Secretary Perry’s direction, Department of Energy staff are preparing a study on the long-term viability of baseload power plants. The memo to staff ordering the study ignored the fundamental changes taking place in the electricity industry.

In the past, coal and nuclear were perceived to be the cheapest resources, and the prior electricity system structure relied upon large power plants without valuing flexibility. Today, low natural gas prices, declining renewables costs, flat electricity demand due to more efficient energy use, and stronger climate and public health protections are all driving an irreversible shift in the underlying economics of the electricity industry. As a result, the term “baseload”—which historically has been used to refer to coal and nuclear plants—is no longer useful.

Secretary Perry’s memo perpetuated several outdated and incorrect propositions regarding “baseload” resources, clean energy, and grid reliability. Here are three myths to look out for in evaluating the completed study:

Myth: “Baseload power is necessary to a well-functioning electric grid”

Reality: As new reports from the Brattle Group and the Analysis Group show, “baseload” is an outdated term. It does not refer to any electricity system values or services, and it is not equivalent to reliability. While the term “baseload” can have several different meanings, it historically functioned as shorthand for a category of resources that provided relatively low operating-cost electricity to meet minimum round-the-clock electricity demand levels. The term is reminiscent of a time when coal and nuclear power plants were viewed as essential for supplying power to meet customer needs and few if any viable alternatives existed. 

In today’s electricity system, however, using “baseload” to describe a particular type of power plant or resource no longer serves any practical purpose. The price competition from renewable energy and natural gas is far stronger it was in the past, meaning that it no longer makes sense to default to inflexible coal and nuclear units, which can’t be quickly ramped up and down, to serve the bulk of load. Instead, as many already are doing, decision makers should focus on a framework that: (a) effectively and efficiently defines electric system and public policy needs (e.g. operational flexibility, greenhouse gas abatement) and (b) develops tools, markets, and methodologies that draw upon the broad range of available resources that can cost-effectively and reliably meet those needs. This framework rewards coal and nuclear plants only where they are truly needed, but prioritizes other resources when it is more cost-effective to do so.

Image source: The Brattle Group

Conceptual Electricity Demand and Supply Mix in Traditional Planning. Historically, utility planners grouped power plants according to whether they were “baseload,” “intermediate,” or “peaking.” This old way of thinking neglects the possibility that a mix of resources can supply electricity at any time of day and do not need to be layered on top of one another in this rigid fashion.

Image source: The Brattle Group

Illustration of Electricity Demand and Supply Mix with High Renewables Penetration. Today, grid operators allow a mix of resources to dynamically contribute to a reliable and cost-effective system.

Myth:  “Renewable energy resources like wind and solar undermine grid reliability”

Reality: The record shows time and time again that wind and solar power contribute to a dependable power supply and help prevent blackouts and other grid problems. Just one of many examples: the California grid operator, which manages a grid with nation’s highest levels of solar power, confirms that solar energy can provide many grid reliability services like voltage support and frequency response, both of which are necessary to ensure a constant and stable power flow. In fact, renewable resources often can provide reliability services better than conventional natural gas or coal resources. We also know that high penetrations of renewables can be managed reliably. For example, wind energy in Texas often provides more than 30 percent or even 40 percent of the state’s daily power needs throughout the entire day. Meanwhile, numerous studies also show very high levels of renewable energy can be reliably integrated into the electricity transmission system. Research from the non-partisan National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) shows that with continued innovation in grid practices, increased flexibility in our power system, and improved power management among different grid regions of the country, we will be able to power our country primarily with wind and solar power.

Myth: “Wholesale power markets should discriminate in favor of “baseload” resources”

Reality: “Baseload” is not equivalent to reliability or any other system needs, and for that reason resources should not be compensated  solely on the basis of their status as “baseload.” Instead, grid operators and planners should focus on valuing needed services, like flexibility – the ability to ramp up or down quickly to meet changing demand. Resources like coal and nuclear are often limited in their ability to provide flexibility services.

Additionally, markets can and must reflect the value of state energy policy choices that advance new wind and solar development, rather than devaluing or excluding them. Policies such as renewable portfolio standards requiring a specific amount of renewable energy in the electricity mix reflect a sensible desire to avoid dangerous pollution and environmental impacts associated with fossil fuel extraction. In fact, fossil resources are already over-credited in the markets or receive their own subsidies (which, unlike renewables incentives, are often not justified by societal benefits).

Secretary Perry’s memo perpetuated several false narratives that ignore the underlying reality in today’s electricity markets. Our hope is that, with contributions from the knowledgeable staff at the Department of Energy, the report itself reverses course and makes a productive contribution that can reinforce the initiatives of grid planners and operators as they update their practices for a modernized, low-carbon electricity system.

Republished with NRDC's permission from here.

About the Authors

Kevin Steinberger

Policy Analyst, Climate & Clean Air program

Miles Farmer

Clean Energy Attorney 
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Rachael Lewis's picture
Rachael Lewis on Jul 11, 2017

Comment on a social media share:

A correct summary . It left out the fact that all installed coal and nuclear "baseload" plants ( and nearly all gas fied combined cycle plants built prior to 2010) were not designed for fast startup nor for multiple startups per year, as there is no provisions for managing fatigue in the ASME code section I ( and section III assumes only annual startups). In areas with the solar PV "duck curve", some plants are required to startup and shutdown 2 times per day, with very fast startups. The fatigue damage that is imposed on thick walled pressure vessels that were not designed for such an operating mode can be excessive and penalize availability.
one additional benefit of decommissioning such baseload plants is that it frees up an enormous amount of water that had been used for cooling their condensers.


Joseph Sylvia's picture
Joseph Sylvia on Jul 21, 2017

Wonderful and informative article. It is my belief that efficiency and capability should be looked at with regards to all stages of the electrical grid. Transmitting electricity with as little line loss as possible is imperative to making the case that renewable energy is reliable and efficient to an acceptable scale. Too often the conversation is based solely on the generation and usage of energy when talking about efficiency. More and more, people are starting to consider the ways in which energy can move from point of production to end user as efficiently as possible because of technological advancements in conductor technology. A project done by AEP in Texas last year using Drake sized Aluminium Conductor Composite Core (ACCC) to replace same size ACSR resulted in the same emission reduction as removing 34,000 Cars from the roads and increased capacity and reliability to the grid. Texas is a large state for renewable energy production and thankfully they have found value in high performance conductors such as ACCC. It is my belief that as time goes on, the conversation is becoming more about a system working efficiently rather than any singular piece of the equation. 

Scott Brooks's picture
Scott Brooks on Jul 22, 2017

Hydro is the only power source that works efficiently with renewables. Those Natural gas powered generators suffer stressed fatigue ramping up and down to follow renewable intermittency.

Then there's that large infrastructure to maintain and what happens when all those wind turbines and solar cells wear out? What is the cost to remove and replace them?

And renewables are over subsidized which makes them appear cheaper.


The US should be ramping up research on 4th gen nuclear that is far more efficient and sustainable then most any renewable.

Thorium Debunked

Howard Bartlett's picture
Howard Bartlett on Jul 24, 2017

Oh, please! 

Of the first four responses, only that of Scott Brooks was bore any semblance of accuracy – and his assertion that hydro alone is efficient with renewables is incomplete.  Modern reciprocals (e.g., Warsila) have excellent start up times to full load, low emissions, and are efficient on multiple fuels.

If you want to have a discussion about redefining “baseload,” fine, but this article jingoistically deems any extant fossil or nuclear plant deficient if it cannot accommodate the considerable quirks of any new and hyper-subsidized generation source which demands dispatch on the grid because it is politically correct and allegedly “renewable.” 

With respect to any notion of baseload, why is it a deficiency for a large plant to take 10-20 minutes to approach full load output and NOT a deficiency for a photovoltaic array to come on at night?  And as long as we’re using some consulting company’s stylized graph as data, precisely where is the wind farm that is dispatched 24/7?  And apples-to-apples for each kilowatt hour, how many more birds does a wind turbine or a mirror in the Mojave kill than a coal plant’s smokestack?  As far as how “renewable” it would be to replace current worldwide generation with wind turbines, consider not just the capital cost, maintenance, and intermittent output, but the environmental impact:

I advocate three alternate propositions in place of the alleged myths the authors claim to debunk:  (1) Some notion of “baseload power IS necessary to a well-functioning grid” until all the Inherently Intermittent Power Generation Sources (wind and solar, this means you) develop enough well-behaved and predictable availability to PLAN their dispatch times at least 5% as reliably as a fossil plant.  (2)  Since the big iron was here first (i.e., already a sunk cost), renewables need to be coupled with storage capacity (e.g., hydro reservoir filling) sufficient to demonstrate they will not cause existing fossil plants to cycle rapidly (increasing emissions and decreasing fossil fuel efficiency) before claiming they increase grid reliability.  And (3) wholesale markets absolutely should discriminate in favor of generation sources with probability of successful dispatch at ANY specified time, unless and until UNSUBSIDIZED renewables can do a third as well.  When they approach half as well, I’ll revisit that opinion. 

It is time to stop ignoring the total cost picture of all generating sources.  It is time to stop subsidizing and favoring new technologies disproportionately to their costs and, yes, their own environmental impacts.  There are virtues other than merely being low-carbon.


Ali Ibrahim's picture
Ali Ibrahim on Jul 29, 2017

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2 Always manage the power system to model workers and work planner from better ways
Contributions from energy research to contribute to finding the appropriate scientific solutions in the renewable energy, program is the goal of building and its social implications. Aiding towards the future and economic in order to connect between you is the goal of knowledge. What is necessary in the scenarios of workers through you is the knowledge of the participation  we heard recently. For clean technology you are helping towards the development of the future needs of our country is the plans of the environment is the future.

Scott Brooks's picture
Scott Brooks on Jul 31, 2017



72.8% of World’s Renewable Energy is Made By Burning Wood & Dung—20x More Than Wind & Solar Energy


Scott Brooks's picture
Scott Brooks on Jul 31, 2017

Mr. Bartlett

Such BS:

1st of all CO2 is good for plant growth, has nil effect on climate change, on the contrary it's just an indicator of either a warming or cooling planet.

2nd it's renewables that are unsubstantially subsidized:

Why Do Federal Subsidies Make Renewable Energy So Costly?

3rd, the cost factors of manufacturing and disposal are not figured in for wind or solar.

The total costs are never really figured in for pro renewable technology.

4th, it distorts the market prices leading to more expensive and unreliable energy.


Howard Bartlett's picture
Howard Bartlett on Aug 2, 2017

Well put, Mr. Brooks.  (Owing to a typo at the beginning of my response, you may have mistakenly had the impression that I was opposing your response; rather, I was in substantial agreement with you, and my objection, as yours, was with the posted article to which we had both responded.  My second sentence should have read, "... only that of Scott Brooks has any semblance of accuracy...")

Your other links are substantive, and I'll read them more carefully.  An easy primer on the thesis of your arguments is found in the short Prager U video:

Can We Rely on Wind and Solar Energy  4:24


Ali Ibrahim's picture
Ali Ibrahim on Aug 1, 2017

i sorry that fear me, is i Browse the internet,

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