Who Produces the Most Renewable Energy?

The Most Power

Without a doubt, the Three Gorges Dam in China produces the most renewable power in the world. This colossal structure produces 22,500 Megawatts of electricity, significantly more than the 5,000 Megawatts produced at Niagara Falls and the 14,000 Megawatts produced at Itaipu, on the Brazil-Paraguay Border. All three of these hydroelectric plants are impressive structures, but does Three Gorges deserve to be called the best renewable energy site? The environmental credentials are flawless from an energy perspective, but are highly suspect in terms of effects on the local environment. The Three Gorges Dam has displaced some 1.2 million residents, and contributed significantly to deforestation in the region. It has been blamed for severely damaging biodiversity of the river, most notably contributing to the extinction of the Yangtze river dolphin.

The Three Gorges Dam

Image by Christoph Filnkößl

The Biggest

The biggest renewable energy site is the Roscoe Wind Farm in Texas, covering 100,000 acres, more than seven times the size of Manhattan. The collection of 627 wind turbines produces 782 Megawatts of power. The size of the Andasol Power Station, the world’s biggest solar plant pales in comparison, at only 500 acres. Compared to hydroelectricity, both the large wind and solar plants cover much more land, but produce 40 to 500 times less electricity. On an environmental front, these plants certainly have a much better track record than hydroelectricity. It is unlikely turbine blades are a significant threat to birds, and the solar power plants tend to cover very dry uninhabited lands.

Roscoe Wind Farm

Turbines at Roscoe Wind Farm

Renewable Energy Site Cost

The Three Gorges Dam easily is the most expensive renewable energy project, costing 30 billion US dollars to construct the site. In principle the more expensive a project is the less desirable it is since construction costs need to be recouped. In the case of the Three Gorges Dam there is such a large amount of energy being generated, the payback on investment time is estimated to take roughly ten years, similar for the payback time for many wind turbine installations.

For the year 2009 wind energy accounts for two percent of all the power consumed in the world and solar a fraction of a percentage. Wind and solar energy are distributed sparsely around the world. The decentralized nature of wind and solar power has numerous advantages. These installations can be located close to where the power is being consumed, saving in distribution costs. An important consideration is places where wind power can be profitable cannot be monopolized by a single population or government. This decentralization of electricity generation reduces the incentive to fight over renewable resources, as the wind and sun are available everywhere. As of 2010 wind energy is the cheapest way to make renewable energy, explaining the 30 percent annual growth it has experienced from 2006 to 2008.

The Most Overlooked Renewable Energy Site

The Cerro Prieto Renewable Energy Station produces more power than any geothermal station in the world. Located advantageously in Mexico near by the border of power hungry Southern California and Arizona, this station churns out 720 Megawatts of electricity, similar to the 782 megawatts at the Roscoe, Texas wind site. Another large geothermal site worth mentioning is Hellisheidi Power Station in Iceland. Hellisheidi Power station produces 400 megawatts of electricity, contributing towards the 66% of electricity that is supplied by geothermal energy in Iceland.

The World’s #1 Renewable Energy Site

Due to the distributed nature of the fastest growing sectors of the renewable energy economy, wind and solar, no single wind or solar installation wears the crown for world’s #1 renewable energy site. Wind and solar can certainly take the title for most promising renewable energy sources, and will likely drive much of the growth in the renewable energy industry. The gargantuan Three Gorges Dam makes a good case for itself by producing an astounding amount of energy- over twenty times more electricity than the second and third most powerful renewable energy sites. While hydropower generates massive amounts of power, its potential for growth is limited. Each river can only support a limited number of hydroelectric dams, and the ecologic damage of each dam is significant. Even considering the significant environmental misdeeds, the Three Gorges dam is indeed the world’s #1 renewable energy site… for now.