The Future of Baseload Power Generation
March 26, 2012

The Future of Baseload Power Generation

Michael Crumbliss for

The annual MIT Energy Conference has grown to be the premier energy conference of its kind, drawing participants from around the world to discuss the current and future state of energy production, use, and technology. The conference in its seventh year still entirely planned, managed, and led by students from the college. In my opinion the students´ direct involvement keeps the conference honest, progressive, and productive. Every talk or panel I attended was at full capacity with young inventors, entrepreneurs, and college freshman sitting beside CEO´s of multinational corporations and industry veterans of all types.

The first panel of the MIT Energy Conference met on Friday March 16 on the MIT Campus to discuss “The Future of Baseload Power Generation.” Included In the panel were representatives from large regional power companies, General Electric in their capacity as a worldwide power generator, and academia.

Baseload power refers to the minimum amount of power that must be produced to maintain power to the grid at all times. Baseload is what makes the lights come on when you hit the switch first thing in the morning after the typically low power use early in the AM hours. The grid is constantly energized at a pre-determined minimum level. Failure to maintain this level leads to brown-outs and black-outs.

In almost all current cases baseload power is produced using coal, gas, oil, and nuclear facilities. These power plants are large and meant to operate with a stable output. Increasingly as intermittent sources of power like wind and solar are added it becomes important for baseload plants to be capable of ramping production up and down more than in the past, and turning on and off in some cases.

Chief among concerns about these plants are known levels of pollution, especially in the case of coal upon which much of the world´s baseload depends. In the case of nuclear power, catastrophic meltdowns are possible. All these plants produce large amounts of toxic waste. Providing fuels requires extensive and ongoing mining, drilling and transport.

The members of the panel discussed the future of baseload under increased environmental scrutiny. All agreed that gas is the only near term solution with nuclear plants taking too long to build, and with coal is on the way to much reduced use.  Coal causes 40% of harmful emissions in the US alone:

The Representative from the Southern Company spoke of a new 500MW coal plant in Mississippi. This was the only new coal plant mentioned in the panel.  Southern is currently constructing the Vogtle nuclear plants #3 and #4 in Georgia. Each of these two new units will produce 1100MW.

The representative from PSEG spoke of the company´s involvement with wholesale, retail, and renewable power in the Northeast (NJ, PA, NY, DE, MD). PSEG uses nuclear, coal, and combined cycle plants, and relatively small but growing renewable input. PSEG is building no more coal plants and closing down old ones. 1500 MW will be taken off-line in the near future. Gas and possibly nuclear is the future for PSEG. The proposed nuclear site is in Southern New Jersey. On a national scale the speaker states that 30-35 GW of coal will be retired.

The representative from IHS used Texas as an example of the future of energy consumption. Texas has a separate power grid and can be seen as a single customer.  Texas has also led the way with integration of new power sources and updating of its grid and power management systems. This speaker confirmed mentioned that gas is going to replace coal in some large portion in the near future. He also spoke to the possibilities of emerging large-scale storage technology (batteries).

The panel agreed that technology and fuel choice can effect carbon release in the United States and other developed countries, but have little or no confidence that China, India, and third world countries will make any effort at all in reducing emissions.