Understanding the Scale of Electric Power Generation

I originally wrote the article below almost 3 years ago in the Fall of 2008!  It was before I started this blog, but it was one of my first forays into writing articles to help people understand the basics of electric power generation.  It was right before I had the inspiration for Mapawatt (the original idea - which was very similar to Microsoft Hohm - has gone through many revisions since then) while reading Hot, Flat and Crowded.  I was recently searching through my GMail for a report I co-wrote my senior year of college on ethanol (which will be referenced to later in the week) when I found this old article that I wrote.  I've added in some hyperlinks to some posts we've put up since then.  Let me know what you think?


I am currently reading Thomas Friedman’s new book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded. The book is a must read for anybody who is hoping to usher in a green revolution, as this is what Friedman calls for in the book. I am halfway through the book and just read a section that I agree with very strongly. Mainly the fact that there has been much attention in the media to “Go Green!”, yet the public has little understanding of what this truly means or how challenging the issues surrounding our energy policy and use really are.

Friedman states, “Sure, if you look at how far we have come in just the last five years, it can feel like we’re having a green revolution. But if you look at where we have to go in the next ten years, we’re having a party.” His point is that “going green” is no simple task and may require hard work. If we truly want to achieve sustainable energy practices we are going to have to do more than turn off lights and turn down the thermostat. We are going to have to sacrifice at points, come up with creative solution, or at the very least undergo a fundamental change in how we view energy consumption!

So let me try to put some things into perspective. Al Gore has recently called for the US to get our electricity from carbon-free sources in ten years. Does the public really know what this means? I want to look at one aspect of “green”, and that is energy production. Before we can call for 100% renewable energy, we have to understand the task ahead of us. To do that, we need to get a feel for energy production.

For the sake of continuing Friedman’s “party” metaphor, I propose that we have Lance Armstrong generate some power for us! I’m going to hook Lance’s bike up to one of these contraptions and make him generate some power for me. This website states an average rider can generate 200 Watts of electric power, but luckily I have Lance, and he is going to produce 400 Watts for me (this is even high for a professional cyclist. Also, there will be inefficiency in converting Lance’s leg motion into electricity, but 400 is a nice, round number). All told Lance will be able to power almost 7 (400 Watt divided by 60 Watt light bulb) incandescent light bulbs for me. Woo Hoo!!!

Wait a minute, I have the best cyclist in the world pedaling away in one of the most efficient methods of human power production and all I can power is 7 light bulbs? Hmmm…I use more power than that in my house, I wonder if there is another idea?

I once worked at a nuclear station in South Carolina. I remember it took up a lot of land. What if I got rid of the nuclear station and just put a bunch of Lance Armstrongs on that land? Considering the nuke power plant was about 2.5 Giga (trillion billion) Watts, I would need about 6,345,000 little Armstrongs pedaling away to replace the production from the nuclear plant! While Lance’s marketing team would love this, I don’t know if that will work either. Let’s see, there is coal power plant right across from my house. It is rated at 540 Mega (million) Watts. I would only need 1,350,000 riders to replace that…..

Well, it’s not looking like I’m going to replace our current methods of power generation with cyclists anytime soon. What if I was just looking to replace the nuclear station or coal plant with solar PV? Florida Power and Light is planning the largest solar installation in the US at 25 MW. I would need a tad bit over 100 of these installations to replace my nuke plant and almost 22 of the solar plants to replace my coal plant!

Ok, obviously I’m not seriously considering any of these propositions. I simply want to put power production at a scale that people can understand. In order for us to say we want 100% renewable energy, we first have to really understand what energy is and the scale that it represents.  The point is not that I want to get my power from bike generators (although this would be fun to watch). Everyone needs to understand the relative scale we are talking about. It’s not that I don’t want solar power to displace coal, it’s that there is a long, hard road ahead of us in order to achieve this goal. We are still a long way away in new solar installations from displacing a single old coal plant!

As Friedman would say, before we pat ourselves on the back for a great “green” job well done, we need to look at what lies ahead, buckle down, and start coming up with real solutions. It is not an easy road that lies ahead, but a road that we all must take. And why we’re at it, we might as well hop on a bike for the ride……


-       347 watts

-       average rider, 4 watts/kg

-       2.538 Giga Watts

-       largest solar plant, 15 MW

-       25 MW

- 540 MW

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Some other good reads for sense of scale... <a HREF="" rel="nofollow">Sustainable Energy - without the hot air</A> and a video: <a HREF="" rel="nofollow">Climate Change Recalculated</A> Both take a little while to get through, but worth the time if you are a 100% renewable advocate, to know just what it is we're really talking about here. And it's daunting...
ckmapawatt's picture
Eric, I also highly recommend <a href="" rel="nofollow">"Sustainable Energy: Without Hot Air" which I wrote about here</a>. One of my favorite quotes: "If everyone does a little, will achieve a little". The scale of change required to move away from fossil fuels truly is amazing.
From your original article, a gigawatt is a billion watts not a trillion.
ckmapawatt's picture
Good catch. Change made!
We have many idle people in prisons who could be pedaling for priviledges. Not going to replace nuclear but many hands/legs make light work.

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