Baseload Ain't Dead.
Jamie C. Beard, Esq.
The past 24 hours has been a schadenfreude party in Texas for hydrocarbon proponents as frozen wind turbines and solar panels covered with snow in the worst winter storm in since the 1980s have contributed to rolling blackouts across the state. This piece is not intended to pile on top of or support those sentiments. I am a supporter of the energy transition. I do not believe that this rare storm should be used as an excuse to justify prolonging our reliance on hydrocarbons a second longer than we must in our quest toward a clean energy future. But there is a commonality – a point underlying all of the love pouring out for oil and gas that I very much agree with. Oil and gas is baseload. And we need baseload.
I recently had a tensioned call with a rather famous proponent of solar and wind who stated during our discussion with absolute authority, and without a hint of uncertainty that baseload is dead. Dead. As in, we don’t need it. Period. This isn’t a one off. I met a similar reception at a clean energy conference recently where I spoke to an audience of traditional renewables supporters. When I mentioned the need for baseload in our energy future, the reactions were words like “myth” and “debunked.” I may as well have been a member of QAnon given the tone of the reactions.
I drafted this article a few weeks ago, then saying that we should call California to ask whether baseload is dead. But as of today, we can also call Texas. And Germany. As we push many billions of dollars of investment in intermittent renewables onto the grid over the coming years, this is a problem that will get worse if not addressed. We have to start being honest if we want to solve energy and avoid global repeats of the unexpected (and life threatening) blackouts that are being experienced by Texans currently.
The fact of the matter is utilities love baseload, and they are dying to get their hands on the elusive green baseload to support transition and avoid price hikes. Geothermal. Geothermal. Geothermal. Hey world. Geothermal.
So let’s talk straight about why folks in intermittent renewables seem adamant that we don’t need baseload. In my view, there are two primary reasons – none that anyone will admit publicly. The first is that the word baseload is and has always been associated with oil, gas, coal and nuclear. And these four words cause allergic reactions in environmental circles. Baseload is bad because baseload is dirty. Therefore, even though we need it, we can’t say we need it because we’d be admitting that we need something dirty. So instead of taking the issue seriously, we wax poetic about energy storage technologies and how they will catch up in efficiency, cost, scale. How magic grid management techniques can solve this – mostly. Build the turbines and install the panels and the energy storage will come. And shh let’s not talk about lithium mining…Right?
The second reason is all about capitalism. Adding baseload capacity to the grid will limit the growth of intermittent renewables, because baseload tends to be inflexible. As much as we like to make drum circles around solar and wind farms, the fact is they are raw capitalism at its best - profit making enterprises, many with developers who have no interest in environmental causes or preservation, with fierce lobbying and everything climate and environmental activists love to hate associated.
So what if there were a green energy option that happened to be baseload? Are we still going to call the benefits of baseload a myth? Could we admit then that we do, in fact, need – even want - baseload? Let’s try it. Geothermal is green baseload. For geothermal to succeed and grow, we’ve got to embrace and leverage the strengths of the energy source, and baseload capability is one of geothermal’s best. There are others. Tiny footprint compared to other renewables. 10X smaller than wind – even zero footprint if we put closed loop geothermal plants in underground facilities. Geothermal is secure from extreme weather events, and has nonexistent end of life disposal issues in comparison to other renewables. It requires little or no rare earth mining to feed its supply chain. And it’s baseload. Arguably the only truly green baseload in the world. Solar and wind developers who view baseload as a limit on their potential for growth probably aren’t going to like this, nor want another clean energy competitor. But what about people who just want to use the best tools in the shed and go as fast as we can to fix climate change. How about it?
And while I’m advocating here that proponents of traditional renewables need to get religion about the need for grid stability and baseload, geothermal and their oil and gas suitors need to start owning what they are and do as well. As it stands now, geothermal developers prefer to use the language “well construction” instead of drilling. “Hydroshearing” instead of “Hydraulic Fracturing.” “Dispatchable” instead of “Baseload.” We need to stop the BS there. We can’t expect to succeed by insulting the intelligence of the public. And the reality is strength, not weakness. Yes, geothermal involves drilling. We are leveraging a highly skilled global workforce using assets, technologies and methodologies that already exist to develop clean energy. That’s awesome! Yes, some geothermal concepts utilize fracking techniques. Decades of technology development and know-how can be transitioned and applied to develop clean energy. That’s awesome!
And Geothermal is BASELOAD. Own it. Own it all.