Clean Power Needs a Firm Footing

How to ensure stability through the peaks and valleys of demand
Electrical grids need reliability as demand rises and falls. Photo: Naypong Studio | Adobe Stock

We need power all the time, from heating, cooling, and cooking at home to the industrial backbone of data centers, mining, manufacturing, and beyond. Even 99% reliability is not enough, made painfully clear through blackouts and shortages. The electrical grid must meet everyone’s needs around the clock, without fail, and the best way to do so is with firm power.

Firm means power that is always available, even under tough conditions. It is often used to meet the baseload, which is the minimum power demand over a specific period of time. According to data from the U.S. Energy Information Agency, during the first week of April 2024 baseload made up about 84% of average demand in the United States. Firm power like natural gas, nuclear, and coal ensure the baseload can always be met. In 2023, those three sources supplied 77% of all electricity in the United States. Results vary from region to region, but it’s clear that reliably and sustainably meeting at least baseload needs is critical as we move through the energy transition and in the face of ballooning demand. Yet only a few clean power sources can reasonably do all that heavy lifting on a global scale.

Historically, power plants like coal and nuclear have been the top sources of firm power because they rarely turn off and supply constant electricity to the grid, meeting at least the baseload requirement. Then, intermediate and peaker plants will ramp up and down as consumption fluctuates to deliver the remaining demand. Natural gas, hydro, solar, and wind tend to be good intermediate and peak power sources.

Some have argued that firm power dedicated to meeting baseload needs will no longer be necessary with more weather-dependent renewables like wind and solar varying their output throughout the day, disrupting production schedules with low operating costs. Unfortunately, interrupting steady-state power plants can wind up raising the overall system cost, leading to higher prices across the board. There will always be a need for firm power, especially with more weather-dependent renewables and global demand leaping in the next couple of decades.

Even 99% reliability is not enough.

So, what are the options for firm power in the clean energy transition? Weather-dependent renewables are variable by nature and require systemic changes to become more reliable. For example, if California were to run on wind, solar, and storage alone by 2045, it would need to build about 500 gigawatts of power-generating capacity. In perspective, that would be like dedicating half of the U.S. generating capacity today just to California. Without firm power, you would also need to build enough long-term storage to handle seasons, not just days, of the year with less wind and sun. Most of that backup storage might only be used once a year, but it would have to be there to ensure the electrical grid's reliability. However, paired with firm power, the low operating costs of wind and solar energy make them good sources for topping off demand.

The ideal power mix would thus have intermittent resources meeting intermediate and peak demand with clean and firm power at the foundation. Only three existing sources can provide that foundation while keeping emissions in check: nuclear, hydropower, and geothermal. Nuclear and hydropower have long provided most of the world’s low-carbon energy but may have reached their limits due to geopolitical and geographic constraints, respectively. Geothermal has also been geographically constrained to areas where sufficiently hot water and steam are naturally found underground.

However, geothermal is primed for expansion in the coming years thanks to a renaissance of research and development. New approaches will allow geothermal energy to accelerate deployment by targeting hot, dry rock on a fraction of the land other renewables require. The key is no longer being tethered to pre-existing steam; by piping water down into superhot rock, we can generate our own steam and electricity almost anywhere, as much as 10x more.

The benefits of firm power from geothermal will only grow in magnitude throughout the clean energy transition. The electrification of transportation and industry, coupled with increasing urbanization, means we must meet today’s demand with clean power and accommodate a potential doubling of overall demand by 2050. Decarbonizing residential life, transportation, and industry is already forcing countries like the United States to rethink their transition.

Geothermal energy offers one of the most robust firm power solutions in a decarbonizing world. Next-generation geothermal is just scratching the surface today, and exponential deployment may be on the horizon. Clean and firm power sources must be at the heart of the energy transition to ensure reliability and sustainability at all times.

Energy is everything. At Quaise, we look at the big picture to see where the world is and where it needs to go. Today, fossil fuels still dominate global energy by a long shot. A smoother transition to clean energy requires a bold new vision grounded in science, scale, and speed. Join us as we explore the future of energy and the power of deep geothermal.