By Andy Kowalczyk

The trick is getting utilities to stop feeding us empty calories


At the heart of the electric utility’s service model is a promise to provide safe, reliable and affordable electricity. This promise is a very old one, and although it was revolutionary at the time it was made some 100 + years ago. Let’s face it, having a safe, reliable and affordable grid in the modern age is something most of us take for granted, and we could care less how utility companies maintain that reliability.

The grid today differs in a number of ways, but the variety of ways we produce and manage electricity are beginning to change our understanding of the grid. Just like our understanding of nutrition, and what makes a healthy diet has evolved, the theory of how to feed the grid with electricity in a reliable way is beginning to evolve as well. Similarly, just like there are nutrition myths in the food industry, there are stubborn myths in the utility industry too, but the the standard model about how to maintain a reliable grid is increasingly being called into question.

The old theory of the grid relies on building and operating a “pyramid” of power plants, with larger plants at the bottom running continuously. These power plants are commonly referred to as ‘baseload’ generators. Typically, these baseload plants are resources like coal and nuclear, and they have to reach a high operating temperature in order to operate efficiently. It takes a considerable amount of time and wear and tear to reach this temperature, so to make sure they are economical, these plants run continuously. These big baseload plants are large and expensive, and utilities favor them because while they generate large amounts of electricity, they also generate a sizable profit.

The thing is, the growing consensus is that it’s not clear there’s any merit to the baseload concept as it relates to grid reliability, though utilities will readily say otherwise. The arguments for, and against baseload are eminently google-able, but here’s a fresh take. The traditional baseload argument can be broken down a lot like a diet of different kinds of generation resources — think the food pyramid, but for electricity.

Baseload plants like nukes and coal are like pasta, bread, doughy stuff and starch, they are cheap and have low quality calories. Calories are a measure of energy after all. Large gas-fired generation is actually represented by fruits, nuts and grains in this analogy. They are slightly more healthy than baseload power plants for the energy system, but we know that one cannot subsist solely on fruits and nuts. Also, some agricultural practices relating to how they are cultivated can be more polluting than acknowledged.

At the top of the pyramid, many utilities are telling us that renewable energy and energy storage technologies are like red meat. Not from an environmental standpoint, but a nutrition standpoint, they claim that these resources are pleasing to the palette, but in excess are unhealthy. By framing baseload generation as absolutely necessary, utilities often attack ambitious renewable standards as unrealistic, and even a threat to a reliable grid.


a monument built for the industrial food industry


It’s worth noting, that the food pyramid largely benefited the industrial food industry, and just like that model, the baseload diet of energy is a bit of slick marketing on behalf of utilities for a diet of baseload plants, gas, and only a modest helping of renewables that just happens to guarantee a higher profit than the alternatives.

We know this energy diet is literally unsustainable in the long term because of climate change, but there are other inefficiencies built into the baseload model. Electricity can carry large infrastructure costs just to get transported to the place where it’s needed, not unlike costs related to transporting goods by trucks or trains in agriculture. There are a host of benefits to locally and sustainably generated energy in the same way that there are benefits to locally grown food. Locally sourced electricity and energy efficiency can provide local jobs and reduced wear and tear on the grid in addition to providing zero emission and low cost energy.

An energy diet with a diversity of resources also has a diverse array of benefits, and it’s important that we have a healthy approach to grid planning. A rigid approach that is overly dependent on coal, nuclear and gas-fired power plants has too many empty calories, and because of a built-in dependence on these resources, there is a lack of flexibility on the grid. Flexibility is the key to to a more resilient system.

A food diet with a bit of variety is not just more appetizing, nutritionists agree it’s much healthier, and just like the growing movement towards food sustainability, there is a growing movement towards distributed, local generation and grid flexibility over the traditional baseload model. With recent advances in grid technology, and a more thorough understanding of grid economics, customer demand and affordability, the time is nigh to reexamine the baseload model of grid reliability and for the grid to evolve. Our options are many — solar, wind, energy efficiency, energy management and many other approaches can out-perform aging baseload generation assets in providing flexibility, resilience, and community benefits.


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