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Climate Progress

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Joe Romm is a Fellow at American Progress and is the editor of Climate Progress, which New York Times columnist Tom Friedman called "the indispensable…

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Study Finds Renewable Energy Sources are more Efficient than Traditional Ones

Wind energy opponents who say that producing electricity using the power of the wind is not efficient would do well to take a look at a new graphic published on the Guardian’s data blog using UK Government data. ‘Up in smoke: how energy efficient is electricity produced in the UK?’ shows that thermal sources of electricity – gas, coal, nuclear, waste/biomass, oil and other – lose massive amounts of energy as waste heat, compared to almost 0% for renewables.

Gas accounts for 48% of the UK’s electricity supply and, of the 372 Terra-Watt hours of electricity it produces per year, 54% of this is lost as heat. Coal, meanwhile, accounts for 28% producing 297 TWh, loses an even higher proportion – 66%. Nuclear – accounting for 16% of the energy supply with 162 TWh, loses 65% and oil – 3% of the supply with 51 TWh – loses 77%.

Contrast these figures with renewable energy – which all together account for 4% of the UK’s electricity supply producing 14 TWh – they lose less than one percent. So, under this measure, renewable energy is 100% efficient.

Wind energy opponents centre their arguments on the ‘capacity factor’ of a wind farm. The capacity factor of any power plant is a measure of the amount of energy it actually generates compared to its theoretical maximum output in a given time. No power plant operates at 100% of its capacity.

Wind farms do not operate at wind speeds of less than 4 metres per second, and they are shut down to prevent damage during gale force winds of 25 metres/second or more, or for maintenance. But conventional power stations also do not operate all the time – they stop generating electricity during maintenance or breakdowns.

Comparing the outputs of both sources does show that conventional power stations produce power at a level compared to their theoretical maximum that is currently higher than the level for wind energy. Wind power’s capacity factor is around 30% onshore and 40% offshore, increasing year on year as more wind turbines come online and technology improves. Meanwhile, data from the German Association of Energy and Water Industries (Bundesverband der Energie und Wasserwirtschaft) shows that fossil fuels are often below 50%, even in winter.

RenewableUK, the national industry body, says that the UK has one of the best wind regimes in the world and wind turbines have considerably higher capacity factors than many of the European countries where wind already makes a significant contribution to electricity supplies. Denmark, for example, has a wind farm capacity factor of 24% and yet wind power ‘fuels’ over a quarter of its electricity supply.

By. Zoë Casey, via Renewable Energy World


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  • Shytot on July 18 2012 said:
    4% of our electricity at 5 times the price of traditional power sources - wow that is efficient!!! efficient for landowners and shareholders in the wind industry but not such a good return for tax payers and energy consumers. So to hit the 20% by 2020 should be possible if we spend even more money - it would be much simpler if we didn't consume any electricity. wind may be "efficient" but it costs more, it needs back up/ on demand systems and it involves huge infrastructure changes - are they factored in on the green value equation?
    Wind is and always will be a minor source of local energy but to try to justify it as a viable alternative to much more efficient (at volume production of electricity) methods is a very expensive pipe dream.
  • john on July 18 2012 said:
    "renewable energy is 100% efficient."
    What is this, perpetual motion?
  • Mel Tisdale on August 07 2012 said:
    Who would seriously prefer a wind turbine skyline to a natural one? Add to that the fact that wind turbines are unreliable because their source of energy is by its nature also unreliable and one can understand the opposition to them. That opposition gets stronger when one factors in the need for new grid installations and associated miles of cables to further blot the landscape.

    It is not as though there isn't a very good alternative that is capable of meeting all static (and some mobile) energy supply needs without any carbon footprint (other than the obvious construction footprint). The only reason we are not progressing LFTR technology, despite the urgency of both climate change and peak oil, is because the green movement is purist, i.e. remote from reality and as a result opposes it. They want Utopia when what we only have time for is Thatwilldoville.

    Greens will not have anything to do with nuclear technology, even LFTR technology, regardless of how much better and safer it might be from the old, nay ancient, technology of uranium reactors that consume so much precious water and provide such a constant danger to us all in so many ways.

    Just imagine towns and cities with their own LFTR power supplies discretely located in some small area behind some trees, say, with no ugly pylons and cables to despoil the landscape, no massive cooling towers either, no vast amounts of water extracted for cooling systems etc. etc. and above all, safe because they automatically shut down in an emergency and don’t have the risks associated with the high pressure, I mean like really, really high pressure, cooling systems.

    But, oh dear! They produce small amounts of nuclear waste, and even though it is relatively short lived and thus easily manageable, it is still nuclear so that will never do according to the green movement. And there you have the answer to my opening question.
  • Alex Mexicotte on July 09 2013 said:
    As the comments show, the author hasn't thought through the big picture on this one. Renewable sources of energy are generally unreliable and inconsistent. Not to mention the infrastructures of many companies are built to use fossil fuels and the costs to convert to a renewable infrastructure would be staggering. It's going to take many years for the technology to come even close to considering a conversion to renewable energy. The "clean energy" argument doesn't cut it for the guys that make the money from these energy sources. Come up with a way to make it profitable and then it will become an option.

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