How Everything Works
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Question 533

How efficient are solar energy cells and windmills in producing energy for everyday use? — JJ, San Antonio, TX
There are several ways to measure their efficiencies. One way is to compare the energy these devices extract from sunlight or from the wind to the electric energy they produce. By that measure, solar cells are roughly 15% efficient and windmills are roughly 50% efficient. However, you're probably most interested in their cost efficiency—in how much power these devices can produce for a given operating cost. By that measure, both devices are somewhat more expensive to build and operate than conventional fossil-fuel power plants. As a result, the United States continues to rely on fossil-fuel plants because they cost less for each kilowatt-hour of electric energy produced. Nonetheless, solar cells are gradually becoming cheaper and they may become cost effective in the next decade or two. Windmills are already cost effective in some countries that rely entirely on imported fossil fuels. Denmark, for example, uses windmills extensively for electric power. While windmill power plants do exist in the United States, they are largely the results of regulation rather than market forces. But that, too, may change in the next decade or two.

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