Wind Power and Nuclear Power

By Jason Correia

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 representative comparison.  We often read in news stories about a wind turbine being built that “can supply energy for 300 homes.”  Such 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.
___________________________________

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.

8 Responses to Wind Power and Nuclear Power

  1. Great comparison, and something activists still seem to overlook when dreaming of they’re wind-powered Eutopia. What’s your source for the graphic for those numbers?

  2. It looks even worse if you assume a 1600 MW reactor. In my example 2880 wind turbines are required, at a cost of $5 million apiece. Lifespan uncertain. Operations and maintnance costs uncertain (and they won’t be totally known for years down the road, as the turbines age). With a 30 year lifespan, will need twice as many to equal the 60 year (minimum) lifespan for current generation reactors’ output. Of course, an unknown amount of that wind power cannot be used by the grid. But when it is produced, it must be accepted, and it takes the place of conventional production, which results in a lower capacity for the diplaced generator plants, which of course increases the cost per kilowatthour of their output. One big objection to wind is their ability to apparently exterminate our Whooping Crane population and likely other birds as well.

  3. James Greenidge

    These kinds of enlightening visual nuggets can NEVER be promoted enough!
    Good job!

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  4. If you want some really scary numbers, calculate the costs of rooftop solar
    sufficient to match a 1200 MW reactor. The first thing you need to know is that a solar watt is not a watt. It is a fiction, or an STC rating, which assumes a cold solar panel, perfect orientation to the sun, no film or dirt in the panel glass and brand new (with no age deterioration of output). For the typical 6KW solar roof, assume 4300 watts max and 5 suns per day, or 2150 watthours,or 21.5 kWhrs output. Installed costs I believe these days run around $5 per watt ($30,000 per 6K roof) Lifespan uncertain, but will not equal 60 years. Deterioration rates vary but seem to run from 1/2 to 7 or 8 % per 10 year period. So one roof can produce .895 kilwatts per hour. A 1220 MW reactor at 90% capacity, produces 1098 MWhrs per hour, or 1,098,000 kWhrs, same as 1,226,815 6KW roofs, costing $30K each for a total of $36.8 billion. Assuming the need for two rooftop systems to last the 60 years, the total isn’t quite double because the second install won’t need (at the least) to repeat the electrical work. HOWEVER, a cost never mentioned are the costs if the roof needs reshingling but the panels don’t yet need to be replaced. Since installation costs dominate a solar panel install, at reroofing time, the panels will have to be both uninstalled and the roof shingled, and then the panels reinstalled. And, of course, there are the side effect costs due to the fact that the power is not under the control of the grid operator, and backup power generation add costs. Based on the reported size of California solar farms, enough panels to produce a reactor’s worth of power would require something like 80,000 acres crammed with panels.

  5. Arthur | November 8, 2013 at 11:06 |
    80,000 acres crammed with panels.

    That’s a big hunk of nature!! Wait — isn’t that greens are trying to preserve??

  6. 1) Nuclear plant area does not take into account the area required for disposing waste. Keep it and see what is the area required.

    2) The end of life cost of nuclear plant is not considered here. When a wind turbine reaches the end of working life, it can be completely recycled, but when a nuclear plant reaches the end of its life, pour billions more on it.

    3) Cost of insurance of wind turbine is factored in wind power, while the cost of insurance of nuclear power plant is subsidized by legislation. Let Nuclear power company pay the market rate of insurance, then see the rate of nuclear power.

    4) Wind is intermittent, this only means that the storage technology need to be developed to match the requirement. The world is surely getting there.

  7. Atomikrabbit

    Good analysis Arthur – but don’t forget the inverters, and who pays for their repair and replacement. If they last 5 years, you are doing good:
    http://www.letitgo.com.au/solar-inverter-and-system-repairs/21–solar-inverter-repairs.html

    Does the homeowners’ insurance policy account for them? In some jurisdictions firefighters are refusing to respond if solar panels are involved: http://www.foxnews.com/us/2013/10/02/firefighters-alarmed-by-dangers-posed-by-rooftop-solar-panels

    How many annual trips up on the roof for cleaning of dirt, leaves, and snow do you think are required? If 100 million American homeowners are all doing that, I’m bullish on orthopedic supplies. I think it’s safe to say that after 1 year the rooftop solar panel death toll will surpass that of Fukushima (I know, actually after 1 minute).

  8. Abhinav writes:
    “1) Nuclear plant area does not take into account the area required for disposing waste. Keep it and see what is the area required.”

    Response: France stores ALL their high level waste in ONE room at one plant in La Harve in Normandy. The ENTIRE US supply of spent nuclear fuel would not even fill on Costco! Waste is the least important issue in this discussion. And…we can reprocess all the waste and reduce it’s radiological longevity.

    “2) The end of life cost of nuclear plant is not considered here. When a wind turbine reaches the end of working life, it can be completely recycled, but when a nuclear plant reaches the end of its life, pour billions more on it.”

    Response: Yes, most of the costs for this are in fact figured out. They amount to 5 to 10% of the total cost and are paid for already by a very small charge on everyone’s electrical bill. The fund is now in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

    “3) Cost of insurance of wind turbine is factored in wind power, while the cost of insurance of nuclear power plant is subsidized by legislation. Let Nuclear power company pay the market rate of insurance, then see the rate of nuclear power.”

    Response: First, nuclear power companies already for this as required by the Price-Anderson Bill. Like all passenger airlines, libality is limited. One can debate that by why would you let the market “decide”? We can decide ourselves. It also seems like a really good deal since the nuclear libality fund hasn’t had to pay out one CENT. So what does this really “cost”? P-A doesn’t cost a penny.

    “4) Wind is intermittent, this only means that the storage technology need to be developed to match the requirement. The world is surely getting there.”

    Response: Name one. Name on utility scale storage technology currently be utilized. Please. In fact outside hydro-pump-storage, there isn’t any. What there is, on CSP plants, is a very expensive form of storing the heat generated by solar in hot mineral oil or molten salts. They can only store enough energy to last the night, if the night isn’t too cold and, it’s not cloudy the next day. It is a very insecure system and is very, very expensive. But here is the kicker: for solar to do this on, say, a mythical 1,000 MW plant (the largest there is 160mws) to proivde energy around the clock would bean that 80% of the power created durng the day would have to shunted to the thermal storage unit. Thus instead of producing 1,000 MWs at noon it would only be producing 200MWs. This means to GET 1,000 MWs around the clock, or…at noon…it would mean building another four solar thermal plant. Got bucks?