How much fossil fuel and renewables are needed to generate a megawatt hour of electricity?

If you want to generate a megawatt hour of electricity, you have a bunch of options, from fossil fuels to clean, sustainable sources like solar and wind.

What does it take to generate a megawatt hour of electricity?

960 pounds of coal is needed to generate a megawatt hour of electricity 7600 cubic feet of natural gas is needed to generate a MWh of electricity You need about one-twentieth of a solar panel to generate a megawatt hour of electricity over the panel's lifetime you need to spin a wind turbine for 30 minutes to generate a megawatt hour of electricity 1.5 million gallons of water need to flow through a dam to generate a MWh of electricity  

So, in summary, here’s what it takes to generate a megawatt hour of electricity…

  • 960 pounds of coal, enough to fill a bathtub[1]
  • 1/10 of an ounce of processed, enriched uranium[2]
  • 7,600 cubic feet of natural gas, a cloud about 12 feet in diameter[3]
  • 1/20th of a solar panel will generate 1 megawatt hour over its lifetime[4]
  • 1.5 million gallons of water run through a hydro dam (this is an average – actual volume depends on the height of the dam)[5]
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Technically, what is a megawatt hour?

A megawatt hour (MWh) is a measure of electricity flow. It is a similar unit of measure to the kilowatt hour we all see on our monthly power bills, just 1,000-times larger. For example, if your power bill shows 50 kilowatt hours of electricity used in a month, it’s exactly the same as 0.050 megawatt hours.

Megawatt hours and megawatts are often confused but they are very different. A megawatt hour (or kilowatt hour) is a measure of energy, or total electricity delivered. By comparison, a megawatt (or kilowatt) is a measure of power, or the capacity of electrical potential. To use an imperfect but helpful metaphor, think of a megawatt as the carrying capacity of a dump truck and a megawatt hour as how much material it moves over time.

What can you do with a megawatt hour?

Now that we are generating megawatt hours of electricity, what can we do with them? You can drive an electric vehicle 3,600 miles or toast 89,000 slices of bread. To see the entire list and the infographic that goes with it, check out, What is a megawatt hour of electricity and what can you do with it?


  • The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) has tons of information on coal, like their coal home page and lots of cost data on coal.
  • The EIA also has a home page on all-things-nuclear here.
  • To see all the sources used in this analysis, as well as the math, tying it together, you can download the spreadsheet and take it for a ride yourself.
  1. unit – megawatt hour.xls, tab mwh.10, Freeing Energy[]
  2. cost – nuclear (nu).xls, tabs nu.3, nu.4, nu.5, nu.6 Freeing Energy[]
  3. unit – megawatt hour.xls, tabs mwh.13, mwh.14, Freeing Energy[]
  4. unit – megawatt hour.xls, tab mwh.15[]
  5. unit – megawatt hour.xls, tab mwh.17[]

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