Wind power to nuclear power infographic comparison

By Jason Correia

This article is the first in a series of info-graphic presentations about nuclear energy. This graphic compares the energy density of nuclear to that of wind power.

Please click to see a full-sized PDF of this info-graphic poster

Wind power is dilute and variable so some may argue this isn’t a fair comparison. Yet, we often read in news stories about a wind turbine being built that “can supply energy for 300 homes”. This limited information creates a misleading impression that one turbine will produce that power continuously.

If wind power is compared to a yearly megawatt hour (MWh) figure that a nuclear plant can produce, the impression of what wind can power dramatically shifts. The numbers cannot be fully appreciated until they are fully visualized.

Wind generators, or wind turbines, have become a popular symbol of clean carbon free electricity. Unlike other sources of renewable energy such as hydro-electricity or geothermal, wind and solar power are variable producers of electricity. Since the wind does not always blow nor the sun always shine, any given wind turbine will never produce its full capacity rating for an extended period of time.

Capacity factor

The ratio of electricity produced to the quantity it could produce over a year if it was running at full capacity is known as the capacity factor. For wind power, the average capacity factor is 25 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Capacity factor is the feature highlight of this info-graphic poster. To make a graphic representation of how this compares to one nuclear power plant rated at 1154 megawatts (MW), this shows the full count of all 2077 2-MW wind turbines in a 24”x36” poster. This is what would be required to match the nuclear power plant output even if this array of turbines could hypothetically run continuously at only 25 percent of its rated capacity.

The nuclear power plant can run at least at 90 percent of its capacity factor over a year. In fact, it probably could run at 100 percent of its capacity factor for up to 18 months—and this has been done by many nuclear power plants. The 9,000,000+ MWhs it produces could power a city of almost a million people.

To achieve the same result with wind turbines, simply adding more turbines will not necessarily result in a greater amount of electric power or level it out to a continuous flow. Sometimes the wind is slow, non-existent, or even too fast for the turbines to use safely. Thus, this graphic shows a representation of how average wind-power performance could achieve the same amount of power as a nuclear power plant. Unlike a nuclear power plant, however, the output of wind is too variable to power a city. Like most electrical generators, the power output from nuclear and wind are integrated throughout the grid, although wind as a variable source does present some challenges for grid operators.

Placement of wind turbines

Wind turbines on wind farms would not be packed closely together as shown in this graphic. Optimally, wind turbines should be placed at least 7-15 diameter widths apart. Given that one 2-MW turbine can be taller than the Statue of Liberty, this can cover an enormous amount of land area with extremely tall structures. With this imaginary wind farm array, a minimum amount of land area required would be about 318 square miles and could include more for access roads, ground leveling, and tree removals. Wind farms are typically built in groups where the name-plate capacity can be 30-50 MW by 10-30 or more turbines. Thus, we will never see a group of 2077 2-MW (4154 MW name-plate capacity) wind turbines.

The 1154-MW nuclear power plant can typically occupy about 50 acres of land, often with a buffer space of land area of at least 1 square mile. The nuclear plant in this graphic is shown without an optional cooling tower, which can be up to 200 meters high.

The purpose of this graphic is to show a visual comparison of wind power to nuclear power with respect to capacity factors. Although there are many other factors to compare, capacity factor is a straightforward data-driven comparison that is an easy concept to understand—but often overlooked.
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Correia

Jason Correia is an independent graphic artist and web designer who has worked on projects with PopAtomic Studios and Atomic Insights. He is dedicated to producing innovative and creative graphics and presentations to promote nuclear energy education and awareness. He has a BA in Industrial Design from San Francisco State.

15 Responses to Wind power to nuclear power infographic comparison

  1. Wonderful graphic, Jason!

    I have also been annoyed at people when they say: “X many wind turbines is equal to a nuclear plant.” X can approach infinity, and the turbines would STILL not be equal to a nuclear plant, because they are on when they want to be on, not when power is needed. I tried working up a rhyme about this.

    I started with the famous catenary rhyme, about why horizontal ropes have that curve in them:

    There is no force, however great,
    Can stretch a cord, however fine,
    Into a horizontal line
    That shall be absolutely straight.

    My version

    Alas, no wind turbines, however many,
    Can provide power, however small,
    Sure to be there when it is needed
    Or even to be there at all.

    I welcome people to improve this rhyme! Take a crack at it if you want.

    Meredith

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  3. Jason:

    You have made a good start.

    Like Meredith, I feel uncomfortable with the implication that there is some type of equivalency between X turbines and a nuclear facility. I like her poem!

    A comparison I make is that a nuclear facility is like an 18 wheeler making cross country deliveries of large merchandise (e.g. pianos), reliably, quickly, and economically.

    Wind turbines is like trying to do the same job with a “non-fossil fuel” alternative, like golf carts. Not ten, a hundred, a thousand, or a million golf carts could replicate the reliability, speed, and economics of a single truck.

  4. Heinz Horeis

    Dear Jason,

    Compared to Germany, the capacity factor of 25 % is rather high. Calculated from the annual output data as given by the German Wind Association, the overall annual capacity factor of German windmills has reached 20 % only once between 1993 and 2010. Otherways, it has always been less than 20 % . In 2010, it was just 16 %.

    Heinz

  5. Jason Correia

    Heinz, the sample for the capacity factor was taken from a single year from EIA data. Yes, 25% may be generous but it still illustrates the point of the vast number of turbines required to hypothetically generate the same amount of energy as a nuclear plant. Since this is variable output, it will never have the same quality of the base load power as the nuclear plant, of course. The objective for this graphic is to impress less experienced audience members about the dramatic difference. Some people need a picture in their mind to feel that difference. I want the audience to draw their own conclusions by presenting the information as objectively as possible.

  6. I look at those thousands of windmills and all I see are hundreds of thousands of dead birds and bats (unlike antinuclear activists, I actually have a right to call myself an environmentalist).

    Take California for example: the entire state has only about 200 nesting pairs of Golden Eagles left. But just one windfarm at Altamont Pass is killing 65 Golden Eagles (and another 2000 other raptors) every year. That’s 16% of all the eagles in the entire state dead every year. If California were to build the windmills Jason describes here, it could wipe out the entire population of Golden Eagles in a few decades because the only viable location for these turbines is in the same valleys the eagles migrate through and hunt in.

    Meanwhile, we’re hearing all about how nuclear plants cooling systems MIGHT be killing fish eggs or shrimp. Strange that the same people who are so worried about fish eggs are happy to ignore the dead eagles.

    I guess when television and academia brainwash people into beleiving windmills are the benevolent saviors of humanity then one is inclined to dismiss the carcass of an endangered bird as nuclear industry propoganda.

  7. Hi, is there a place where I could buy this poster? I would like to put it up on my wall.

  8. Meredith – I would call you Engineer/Poet, but another online commentator has claimed that handle! (yeah, I know – you are actually a chemist)

    Great job, Jason, thanks for your efforts. ANS, what would it cost to have this distributed to all public schools and media outlets – with a speaker to go with it?

  9. @Joel, you can download the full-sized .pdf and have it printed somewhere that has large format printing capacity. You can also email outreach@ans.org for specific suggestions.

  10. @Atomikrabbit, this is the first in a series of infographics that Jason will be contributing to the blogsite with the goal of making these types of visual nuclear concepts available to a larger audience. I will be talking with him and with the ANS Public Information Committee members and the people active in the Nuclear Literacy Project about incorporating the infographics and other visual learning resources in the ANS K-12 outreach program, which makes materials available for classroom visits and science teacher workshops focused on bringing nuclear science concepts into the classroom. So … it’s a work in progress, but I think we’re all in agreement that it should happen.

  11. I couldn’t blow up the graphic on my computer – is there a rectagle somewhere on it that shows the relative size of a nuclear plant to the wind turbines?

  12. @BigJon – the shaded rectangle in the top middle (you can see it on the thumbnail) has the following comparison of heights:
    Statue of Liberty – 93 m
    wind turbine – 124 m
    nuclear power plant – 60 m

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  14. butternuts

    An interesting graphic. In Nebraska, some well-meaning but poorly informed folks are touting windmills over the Keystone XL pipeline. I would be interested to see this graphic add two more comparisions – a barrel of oil, and a railcar full of Powder River Basin coal.

  15. butternuts, xkcd.com has already done something similar.

    http://xkcd.com/1162/