Bigger not better in making energy

The only way to replace big, old, dirty power plants is with big, new, cleaner ones — at huge cost to consumers.

You hear that a lot, but it's fiction. Not only is it possible but, in some ways, it would be more practical to meet future power needs with smaller, decentralized sources of clean energy — such as the electricity a Somerset company, profiled recently by reporter Bill Estep, can produce from mini-generators fueled by unused natural gas wells.

Utilities would have to rethink the way they operate, however.

David Brown Kinloch, a Louisville engineer and energy expert, explains how utilities would have to change while debunking the notion that traditional power plants are the only way to meet base demand for power in an essay "The Myth of Baseload" included with this editorial on Kentucky.com.

Kinloch is not just a theory guy. He's part of Lock 7 Hydro Partners, which rehabilitated a hydroelectric generator on the Kentucky River in Mercer County that Kentucky Utilities abandoned after more than 80 years.

One of the partners is the Salt River Electric Cooperative. The Mother Ann Lee station, named for the founder of the Shaker religious movement, produces enough clean power for 2,000 homes. Centre College is one of its customers.

Kinloch has estimated that Kentucky could produce more than 800 megawatts of clean electricity just by retrofitting its existing dams. That's the equivalent of a huge power plant and enough clean energy to power more than 800,000 homes.

Detractors of renewable energy need the baseload argument, he says, because earlier nay-saying has been disproved by vast wind farms and solar power's gains in gloomier climes than our's.

Baseload refers to the electricity produced, usually by coal-fired or nuclear power plants which have traditionally had the lowest operating costs, to meet a utility's typical base demand.

Rep. Jim Gooch, D-Providence, chairman of the state House committee that handles energy policy, has frequently dismissed renewable and other forms of decentralized power as incapable of serving baseload.

Kinloch, makes a technical case for why Gooch is wrong and explains what utility planners and dispatchers, gatekeepers of the electric grid, must do to meet baseload demand with decentralized, clean power sources.

Such a transition is bound to happen sooner or later as utilities are required to better protect against health and environmental risks.

Even if Republicans and coal-state legislators succeed in gutting the Environmental Protection Agency — the latest assault is by the U.S. House on almost 40 years of clean water protections — downwind and downstream states and citizens will keep using the courts to force power plants to clean up their acts.

That will make renewables more economically competitive with coal and nuclear.

"The need for large, centralized baseload capacity is not some requirement of the electric power system," writes Kinloch, "but rather a desire to continue to do things as utilities have done in the past, the way they know. What is needed is . . . the willingness of utilities to look at meeting customer load with different resources, and the development of forecasting tools and dispatch methodologies that easily and reliably integrate clean power sources into their systems."

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