Baseload electricity generation creates 24/7 power to the grid to meet the base energy needs of the U.S. While peaking generation must follow the varying hourly electricity needs as demand rises and falls, base load generation operates constantly to support the increment of demand that is always there no matter the time of day or day of the week. The U.S. grid is powered by a variety of baseload generation sources, including coal-fired power plants, natural gas combined cycle plants, nuclear plants, hydropower plants, and geothermal plants. In the last decade natural gas has displaced coal as the predominant baseload electricity source in the U.S.
Some sources of renewable power are available 24/7 (e.g., hydro power – assuming water availability — or geothermal power) and are well suited to serve as baseload units. Both wind and solar are intermittent sources of energy and only generate when the wind is blowing, or the sun is shining.
- Traditional utility scale baseload generation systems include super critical pulverized coal fired power units that combust coal to create steam which turns turbines to generate electricity3 and combined cycle natural gas plants that have both combustion turbines and steam turbines fueled by waste heat from the combustion process.4 Together, coal and natural gas power plants account for 98% of the U.S. power sector emissions.5
- Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage (CCUS) technologies will be essential in reducing the emissions from coal and natural gas-powered baseload generation during the energy transition. CCUS systems capture CO2 from power plants or industrial facilities and compress, transport and inject the captured CO2 deep in the ground to sequester it indefinitely (or utilize it in enhanced oil recovery to the same end).
- At the end of 2021, the U.S. had 93 operating commercial nuclear reactors which create about 20% of the U.S. total annual electricity generation.6 Next generation Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) require less space, less capital, and less frequent refueling than conventional nuclear reactors. Parts of the reactor can be produced separately and assembled on-site. This “modular” aspect of SMRs reduces the price and construction time of a typical nuclear plant.
- Currently, large scale hydroelectricity plants provide about 6.5% of U.S. power but depend on large dams to generate the necessary water volume. As an alternative, run-of-the river Micro-hydropower systems can generate up to 100 KW of electricity, and can operate without using large site-specific dams.7
- Re-powering technologies update aging power generation infrastructure to increase efficiency and reduce emissions through a complete repower, partial repower, or a retrofit. Re-purposing existing infrastructure for updated renewable energy projects reduces costs and administrative burdens. Retrofitting nonpowered dams for hydropower would increase domestic supply of renewable and reliable electric power and allow hydropower to play a more central role in a decarbonized economy.
- Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS) allows for geothermal energy production in new locations where geothermal was previously not viable.
- Energy storage will be key to ensure stable baseload generation as intermittent renewable resources occupy an increasing portion of the energy supply.
Potential Market Size & Timing
The U.S. has set an overall goal of decarbonizing the generation of electricity by 2035, as part of the effort to reach net zero emissions for the entire U.S. economy by 2050.8 With coal and natural gas plants currently generating 60% of the power (or 1,675 billion kWh),9 the transition to a decarbonized grid, while clearly challenging, will create an enormous market opportunity for zero carbon solutions that create clean, firm, baseload power.
Globally, the needs are the same – moving from uncontrolled fossil fuel generation to zero carbon sources. For instance, the International Energy Association (IEA) found that:
- By 2030 under an overall 2050 net-zero electricity scenario, low-emissions technologies need to account for over 70% of all generation, compared to 39% in 2021.10
- The IEA Tracking Clean Energy Progress 2022 Report11 identified hydroelectricity12, natural gas-fired electricity13, and nuclear electricity14 as needing further effort to reach 2050 decarbonization goals.
COAL & NATURAL GAS
- Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage is currently not on track15 to meet a net-zero by 2030 scenario. For natural gas to supply baseload generation power in a decarbonized economy, significant increases in the deployment of cost-effective CCS at scale is needed.16
GEOTHERMAL, HYDROPOWER, AND STORAGE
- DOE’s renewable energy lab (NREL) recently modeled scenarios to achieve net-zero electricity generation by 2035.17 Under all scenarios, 8 GW of new geothermal capacity is necessary and cost effective, with increased deployment in low-cost scenarios. Hydropower adds approximately 5-8 GW across all scenarios by 2035.
- In NREL’s study, Energy Storage (2–12 hours of capacity) also increases across all scenarios, with 120–350 gigawatts deployed by 2035 to offset the addition of intermittent renewable energy and ensure demand for electricity is met during all hours of the year.20
SMALL MODULAR NUCLEAR
- NREL forecasts SMRs may be ready for full commercialization by the mid-2030s, aiding in 2035 decarbonization goals.21 In its net zero grid study, NREL projected a tripling of U.S. nuclear capacity in the “constrained” scenario that presumed restraints on building extensive new transmission lines and large scale solar and wind facilities.22
- Meeting net-zero greenhouse gas emission goals requires a significant reduction in the use of uncontrolled coal and natural gas plants which as mentioned create 98 percent of the emissions in the power sector. While CCUS has potential to reduce the emissions of fossil fuel power plants, deployment has been hampered by high costs and limited commercial demonstrations for capture, transportation and sequestration, and regulatory and legal issues surrounding the permanence requirements.
- In general, existing fossil plants have years of useful life so closing them involves economic loss to the current owners and potentially increased costs for customers.
- High construction costs, lengthy permitting requirements, acceptable nuclear waste solutions and public concern over the safety of nuclear reactors have been barriers to both small modular and conventional nuclear plant additions.
- High costs and geologic constraints (or suitable river sites) currently restrict geothermal and hydroelectric growth.
- Limited long term energy storage alternatives as current battery technologies are currently focused on EV market.
- The Inflation Reduction Act contains $369 billion in climate spending with much of it focused on expanding clean energy production including tax credits and other incentives for hydroelectric, nuclear, geothermal, and CCS. Full, rapid deployment of the provisions should not only reduce U.S. emissions by as much as 41% by 2030,23 but should accelerate deployment of existing and new clean energy technologies including CCUS, Energy Storage, SMRs, and advanced geothermal.
- SMRs are moving towards operation by 2030 in the United States, with two currently developing projects receiving $3.2 billion in support.24 Beyond the additional economic support in the IRA, a DOE study found that the U.S. could accelerate siting and construction of new clean nuclear units by encouraging the repurposing of retiring coal plant sites for new nuclear power installations.25 However, given the history of cost escalation and construction delays in the industry, it may be necessary for the federal government to directly support the construction of one or more demonstration units.
- Additional measures to accelerate the commercialization of enhanced geothermal system (EGS) man-made reservoir technology, which have the potential to produce 100 GWe of geothermal power in the United States, 30 times current domestic capacity.26
- A national carbon reduction mandate for fossil generation and/or additional voluntary greenhouse gas reduction targets can help accelerate the reduction of emissions from traditional fossil generation and provide customer support for alternative new zero power solutions including firm renewables and energy storage.
- Support for development and commercialization of long duration batteries and other high-capacity energy storage solutions (e.g., pumped storage, compressed air, etc.).
Relevant NEMA Technologies
- Wire and Cables
- Motors and Generators
- Electrical Measuring Equipment
- Electricity generation, capacity, and sales in the United States – U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA)
- Electricity in the U.S. – U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA)
- Microhydropower Systems | Department of Energy
- The Long-Term Strategy of the United States, Pathways to Net-Zero Greenhouse Gas Emissions by 2050 (whitehouse.gov)
- In 2021. See https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.php?id=427&t=3
- Electricity Sector – Analysis – IEA; Shares of global electricity generation by source in the Net Zero Scenario, 2000-2030 – Charts – Data & Statistics – IEA
- Tracking Clean Energy Progress – Topics – IEA
- Hydroelectricity – Analysis – IEA
- Natural Gas-Fired Electricity – Analysis – IEA
- Nuclear Electricity – Analysis – IEA
- Capacity of large-scale CO2 capture projects, current and planned vs. the Net Zero Scenario, 2020-2030 – Charts – Data & Statistics – IEA
- Energy System Overview – Analysis – IEA
- NREL, Examining Supply-Side Options to Achieve100% Clean Electricity by 2035 (2022) https://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy22osti/81644.pdf; see also https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/100-percent-clean-electricity-by-2035-study.html
- Examining Supply-Side Options to Achieve 100% Clean Electricity by 2035 (nrel.gov)
- The core scenarios are indicated by thick lines, where sensitive cases are indicated by thin lines.
- Nuclear Electricity – Analysis – IEA
- See summary of various assessments in this article: https://www.utilitydive.com/news/inflation-reduction-act-carbon-greenhouse-emissions-princeton/628849/
- Nuclear Electricity – Analysis – IEA
- See https://www.energy.gov/ne/articles/doe-report-finds-hundreds-retiring-coal-plant-sites-could-convert-nuclear
- Geothermal Energy – ScienceDirect