Visual Comparison of Electricity Generation Technologies

I just put together a couple graphs for a talk I’m giving on Monday to give people a visual feel of the various technologies for generating electricity.  These come with a gigantic caveat: the numbers are far from precise.

With changing technologies, it’s impossible to represent any of this with a single number anyway.  I’m trying to show how the technologies compare to each other, and I used four parameters:

  • Cost ($/MWh),
  • Availability (better the closer the profile of the technology matches a normal demand curve (wind is bad, baseload is okay, dispatchable is best, solar),
  • Emissions (and I count waste storage when it comes to nuclear),
  • Bubble sizes represent the size and durability of the resource (I’ve tried to combine in one number how much power we can get from the resource, but also how long supplies of fuel will last.) 

In both charts, the “best” technologies are in the upper left (low cost, low emissions, and available when we need them.)

I know that I’m going to upset a lot of people because I was too harsh with their favorite technology, so feel free and comment on the numbers I’m using, but also please provide references for where you get your numbers.  Most of these are off the top of my head, so their accuracy is admittedly questionable.   Here are the numbers I used to make the graphs.

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  1. [...] give the last word to Tom Konrad, who recently provided a visual comparison of electricity generation technologies. Improving transmission efficiency won ahead of other technologies when comparing 1) availablilty [...]

  2. Sopogy said

    Really fantastic work on this piece Tom. This type of information is often ignored due to industry positioning and your work provides a good landscape summary covering the major sectors of the energy industry. Thanks for sharing this with the public.

    In your availability chart, an interesting observation is that the first renewable generation technology (3rd overall after efficiency and gas) is concentrated solar power aka CSP. In your lowest emissions chart, CSP is also in the “best of show” category. The challenge for CSP will be to bring down the costs, essentially moving the dots over from a MWH standpoint.

    Thanks and keep up the good work ~ Sopogy

  3. [...] Visual Comparisons of Electricity Generation Technologies [...]

  4. Tom said

    Thanks Sopogy (and for the quotes on your site.) I have to update that CSP chart, though… there have been some great advances in concentrating PV recently… the price per kwh is too high. I also think I was too optimistic about the price per kwh for CSP with current technology…. but at least time is making that one more accurate, not less (like CPV).

  5. [...] and expand on some graphs I constructed this spring: I created a pair of graphs which give an overview of how different electricity generation technologies compare.  These are not precise graphs with anything resembling scientific accuracy, but I think [...]

  6. [...] we can get an understanding of the broad trends of energy technologies. Last week, I added to the Visual comparison of Electricity Generation Technologies I did last spring with a new Visual Comparison of Transport [...]

  7. Thank you, for providing much needed information.

  8. [...] the interconnected electricity system is a great engineering and operational challenge. It also is an opportunity for saving energy rather than buying energy and this blog is a proponent of greater localization and [...]

  9. davea0511 said

    Thanks for being one of a very few people who are bringing this most critical of information into the forefront. I however disagree with your assessment that you were too optimistic in the price of CSP. Ausra has said with new CSP technologies they expect to reach $0.08/kWh, and some within the company have said that with economies of scale and implementation of developing technologies the cost could be as low as $0.05/kWh. When you make these charts it is important to use expected costs rather than historical costs. The current costs of CSP is already only in the $0.14 range in the newest CSP facilities.

    Sad how most of the renewables-earmarked gov’t money has gone to the least promising of technologies. You need to be a squeaky wheel with this info.

  10. Tom said

    The CSP price I show in the chart is actually the Ausra number, but since they have only one collector field, I have reconsidered, and am waiting for the number be shown in the field.

    I have little doubt CSP will get to $.08 / kWh, but it may take a few more years before we’re there.

  11. Luis Carrasco-Salvo said

    I appreciate very much your focusing of this matters, and how are they presented on these two graphs — I understand that the way how you show these aspects of the so many different sources of energy to-day is a very teaching and useful presentation. I will tray to follow your skills. Please accept my thanks. I’m a teacher

  12. [...] together some slides meant to give a visual comparison of transportation fuels, and another set for electricity generation technologies. These slides were intended to be more qualitative than quantitative, and were based on my personal [...]

  13. [...] to a still-useful subway map that predates the trip planner—I rediscovered these slightly dated but insightful graphs comparing different technologies for furnishing additional electric power. Unfortunately, it does [...]

  14. Stan said

    Excellent comparative review. Is there any more recent info? (has anything changed) Are there differences between countries? developed vs. developing economies?

  15. Tom said

    There are some more recent numbers (from a different source) here:

  16. Ari B. said

    Tom, I don’t understand the cost per MWh metric…the more accurate number for assessing financeability of a given technology is cost per kw of installed capacity. To convert the cost per installed capacity to cost per MWh (and are we talking retail or wholesale?) for any technology you have know the performance characteristics of the technology, at the very least, and with renewable resources (especially w/ solar PV and wind) the capacity factor is dependent on environmental factors and the power curve. $.05 per kwh is generally around market price for power contracts, with an additional subsidy for RECs or MPR + SEP in california. I’m interested to know if you have any numbers on the cost per kw installed of efficiency/demand reduction. Thanks and I really enjoy your blog.

  17. Tom said

    Neither cost/power (kW) or cost per energy (kWh) is a complete metric taken alone. The conversion depends on the capacity factor, discount rate, and life of the technology.

    The best performing EE technologies on a per kW basis are demand response, and I present some numbers here:

    However, some EE technologies don’t do much in terms of reducing peak demand (such as CFLs) for these technologies, cost per kWh (or MWh) is the most appropriate measure.

  18. john said

    Hi Tom,
    I live in France, I am not an engeneer, and I am trying to have a simple comparison of the cost to produce energy through various methods for a short speach to a group of people.
    Your study and observations is one of the only comprehensive tentative table that I could find. Bravo. That is quite a job.
    However, I dont quite understand your table. What does “efficiency” have to do amongs coal, wind etc.. How do I read this ?
    Thanks for a simple explanation

    • Tom said

      From the utility planning perspective, there are two ways to make sure there is enough electricity supply to meet demand.

      1) You can build new power plants to increase supply
      2) You can pay your customers to to buy more efficiency appliances, or keep their equipment running efficiently so that they still get all the things they want from electricity while using less of it, reducing demand. This is often call “Demand Side Management” or DSM…

      DSM is basically what I mean by efficiency.

      • john said

        Thank you Tom

  19. oko strom said

    ike this can be a very effective tool for reaching carbon emission reductions.

  20. Kilovars said

    What people want to believe is that so-called “clean” or “renewable” energy is the future. The reality is that although there have been recent advancements in technology on a number of levels; we are still a long way off from efficient vs. cost. Once the government incentives drop off or are reduced we’ll be back to slow motion once again. This is not to mention all the other problems with renewable as we know them today such as irradiance or what happened when there is no wind.

  21. windmill said


    [...]Visual Comparison of Electricity Generation Technologies « Clean Energy Wonk[...]…

  22. “What people want to believe is that so-called “clean” or “renewable” energy is the future. The reality is that although there have been recent advancements in technology on a number of levels; we are still a long way off from efficient vs. cost. Once the government incentives drop off or are reduced we’ll be back to slow motion once again. This is not to mention all the other problems with renewable as we know them today such as irradiance or what happened when there is no wind.”-Indeed true.

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