Somebody at a big PR outfit recently contacted me about one of their clients, a waste management firm. They wanted me to know that their client had just launched a waste-to-power system capable of turning garbage at one of its landfill sites into enough electricity to power more than 2,000 homes. Wittingly or unwittingly, the PR firm was claiming that its client’s system will provide baseload—i.e., 24/7—electricity. You hear that from wind- and solar-power proponents all the time, and coming from them it is a preposterous claim—wind does not blow all the time, and the sun doesn’t shine 24 hours a day. For wind and solar, baseload is a white whale they will never catch.
So just to be sure, I asked the PR person if that was really what she meant. Was there some documentary proof that the system actually does run at its nameplate capacity 24 hours a day, seven days a week, all year?
The PR person, who was very polite and helpful, said she would verify with the client that that was indeed the case. She got back to me very quickly with her client’s answer: yes, it runs 24/7/365. There is no actual documentation proving this; it’s really just anecdotal. In other words, take our word for it.
Which is not to say it’s not true. Maybe they really did catch the white whale of baseload. But if it really is true, the waste management firm really should go out of its way to show people. The “enough to power x thousand homes” claim has so often turned out to be such nonsense in the case of alternative power projects that people are beginning to roll their eyes when they hear it.
If there were no energy sources that actually can and do provide baseload electricity, more people would have a better idea of the nature and value of baseload electricity. It is on-demand power, there whenever you need it, regardless of the time of day or how much you need or how long you need it for. Probably the best way to illustrate its value is to ask who in their right mind would recommend running a hospital operating room solely on wind-generated electricity. Nobody would. What happens if the wind stops blowing in the middle of a life-or-death operation.
I have appeared numerous times on CBC radio and television shows explaining exactly this point in the case of of one particular waste-to-energy project, a plasma gasification operation in Ottawa. The proponent of that project used to make the same claim about baseload capability—in the plasma case, the claim is that the system can power over 3,000 homes. I told various CBC interviewers I am strongly skeptical of that claim. In one instance, the interviewer went back to the proponent and asked for proof that the system really can deliver baseload power. The proponent provided test run data that showed system performance over a test run that lasted a couple of hours. On that basis, the proponent claimed, you can infer that the system can run 24/7.
If you are running a hospital operating room, how reassuring is that?
Of course that proponent isn’t planning to sell all its power to a hospital. Rather, it says that its generator can power over 3,000 homes. Well, the people in those homes expect electricity every single hour of every single day through the entire year. The test-run data do not prove that the system can provide that.
Similarly with the waste management company I mentioned at the beginning. Presumably this company will take its system around to other cities and pitch it as a solution to their landfill problems. Presumably it hired the PR firm to get its story out through the media—the fourth estate is a critical player in the public arena; that is just as true in the local media as in the national. How effective is their pitch if it leaves out the main factor that distinguishes them from the competition?
If you have caught the white whale, prove it.
Update, May 2011: it turns out the PR firm wasn’t just idly chattering. Its client actually is producing something close to baseload power. I recently toured a landfill gas facility near Ottawa, run by Waste Management, and they do indeed run their generating engines most of the time. These are 16- and 20-cylinder piston engines. Waste Management should talk this up—unlike wind and solar proponents, WM can truthfully claim to power x homes. See my post on this.