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Renewables Update

Misconceptions and Myths Surrounding Base Load Power

4 April 2014 Yoh Yasuda, Associate Professor, Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Kansai University

Tomas Kåberger addressed the issue of base load power in his February 28th column. However, without a background understanding including how the term or concept is being used across the world in the 21st century, many Japanese may find Kåberger's column perplexing and have difficulty understanding its message. That's why in this column I would like to introduce our Japanese readership to how "base load power" is being discussed overseas.

As evidence, let's look at the following sampling of literature from organizations with different views on the issue. While all are in English, just glancing over the figures and picking up on key words here and there can be quite informative in itself, even for Japanese audiences.

1. Greenpeace report (p. 37–38, Fig.2.5)
Co-written by experts on electricity grids, the report explains on page 38 a theoretical future daily load curve. This figure illustrates how maintaining a constant output from coal and nuclear power plants becomes technically challenging when a large amount of power is provided by renewable energy, suggesting the need for a more flexible grid to replace the base load model.

2. Report by Agora Energiewende, German energy consultancy (p.2)
This report makes the same recommendation as above, this time concerning the operation of Germany's electricity grid in 2022. Here it clearly states that "'base-load' power plants [will] disappear altogether" (page 2). Incidentally, this figure has also been cited in a document published by the German Federal Environment Agency.

3. Report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Nuclear Energy Agency (OECD/NEA; p.69–71, Fig.3.2–3.4)
This report, written by nuclear energy experts from various countries, discusses the possibilities of flexibly controlling nuclear power in response to fluctuations in grid load and renewable energy supply. It should be noted that the graphs showing the control of nuclear power output on pages 69–71 are not hypothetical or theoretical, but actual measurements taken in France and Germany. (Some countries such as Spain and the UK still operate nuclear power at constant output; however, even in these countries, coal-fired power is already being operated as a flexible "load following" source).

Given the extreme shortage of information available in Japanese, the "base load" jargon seems to have suddenly made its way into public discourse from nowhere. The truth, however, is that the "base load" concept itself is breaking down in numerous countries, where the discussion has shifted to how to design and operate electricity grids to be more flexible. Complicating the problem further is that many Japanese are debating the issue while utterly uninformed of what's happening overseas. Whether one agrees with Kåberger's stance or not, the discussion will inevitably be sidetracked without an understanding of this background. It's quite natural to have differing opinions from various perspectives on the question of what to do about renewable energy, and likewise for nuclear power. But I'm sure everyone can agree that the discussion must be rational, evidence-based, and conducted from a global perspective.

So why is the base-load power model disappearing globally? The short answer is the priority given to renewable energy, but I will leave the long answer for a future post.

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