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What the Heck is the Difference Between a Kilowatt and a Kilowatt-hour (kW vs. kWh)

So you look at a light bulb and it says “100 Watts.” What the hell does that mean? What the Heck is the Difference Between a Kilowatt and a Kilowatt-hour?

Your power company charges your for “Kilowatt-hours” that you use… What the hell is a Kilowatt-hour?!

Juice ManFor starters, a Kilowatt (kW) is just one thousand watts, just like a megawatt (MW) is one million watts. A “watt” (W) is a measurement of POWER. To be precise it’s using one joule per second. However, since no one has uttered the word “joule” since that physics class they took fifteen years ago, we use watts instead of Joules per second, because they’re printed on light bulbs and people have an idea of what they mean. To put it in perspective, a car engine cruising uses about 25,000 watts, which is about 30 horsepower.

But that’s a car… Mechanical energy. We want to talk about electricity since we’re concerned with solar power. With electricity, POWER is voltage time amperage. Or 1watt = 1volt * 1ampere.

A good way to think about electricity is that it’s a lot like water. Voltage is the pushing, or the pressure, and amperage is the flow. A dammed up lake, although it has a hell of a lot of pressure (voltage), doesn’t flow anywhere (zero amperage) so there’s no power (lots of volts * zero amps = zero watts). On the other hand take a super soaker water gun. Super fast stream (lots of amps) but a tiny little compressed reservoir (not a lot of volts). I wouldn’t go so far as to call that “powerful.” Finally, look at a rushing river. Lots of volts, lots of amps, huge power. So wait, Dave, you got off subject, we’re talking about Watts here…

Oh yah, Watts. Ok, so a Watt is energy burned per second. If you flick on a 100 Watt light bulb it’s eating up 100 Joules of energy every second (interestingly, a standard candle is exactly 1 Watt). So now what’s a watt-hour (wH)? Well, don’t get confused when you see a confusing or seemingly incorrect usage of watt or watt-hour in mass media. The two terms are often interchanged and misused.

“Watts per hour” doesn’t make sense because it’s already a measurement of “joules per second.” Does “Joules per second multiplied by one hour” make sense? No. A Watt-hour is what your power company uses to charge you, and it’s a way of removing the “per second” from Watts. So now instead of talking about Joules per unit of time, you’re just talking about Joules period…. but we call them Watt-hours because no one knows what the hell a “joule” is.

Think of Watts as the speed you’re running and Watt-hours as how far you’ve actually run. A kilowatt-hour is the amount of energy equivalent to a power of 1 kilowatt running for 1 hour. If you leave a 100 Watt light bulb on for 1 hour, you’ve done gone and used up 100 watt-hours.

But your electric company will bill you by the kilowatt-hour, so you’ll get a bill for .1 kWh, multiplied by your per-kWh rate. That means if you run a 100 watt bulb for an hour a day for 30 days in a month, and you pay $.10/kWh, your bill will be for .1 kWh x 30 days x $.10, or $.30.

Ok, I feel like I’ve made that explanation 100 times longer than it should have been. Hope that helped.

By Dave Llorens

Last modified: March 14, 2019

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Peter Woo
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Peter Woo

An apartment building with 14,400 square feet parking garage rooftop surface — how much KWH solar electricity can it generate on average day of 12 hours daylight if the entire rooftop is covered with good solar panels? Approximate answer?

Anonymous
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Anonymous

Good enjoyable light hearted explanation. The part that reads “Joules per second per hour” should read, “Joules per second multiplied by one hour. It’s simply a measure of energy capacity provided by the solar panel.

Ben Zientara
Admin

Thanks, anon. On it.

john
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john

how many panels would be needed to produce 200 kwh per day?

Ben Zientara
Admin

Well, depending on your location on the planet, you get about 4-5 kWh per kW of solar panels per day, on average. So you’re looking at a 40-50kW system, and you’d need about 125 of today’s most efficient 400W solar panels to make that system.

Anonymous
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Anonymous

This was a Real long explanation….Kilowatt is 1000 watts. Kilowatt hours is 1000 watts used in an hour.

Szilárd
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Szilárd

Damn, I made a mistake myself: 1 MW=1,000,000 W, not a thousand. The article is correct on that, although it still uses “mW” mistakenly.

Anonymous
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Anonymous

WRONG; There are 24hrs in a day, not 6 hours. 1000 watts generated; (120v x 8.33amps) 1000 watts x 24 hrs=24kwh; 24kwh x 30 days= 720kwh for one month; cost if bought at $0.10 /khw is: 720kwh x 0.10 = $72.00 cost if bought at $0.30 /khw is: 720kwh x 0.30 = $216.00 @ current San Diego rip-off rates.

Ben Zientara
Admin

Yeah, but… the sun doesn’t shine for 24 hours. The number of peak-sun equivalent hours for San Diego is about 5.7 per day, on average (round up to 6), and you get 6 kWh per kW of solar per day, per kW of panels installed. After losses from wiring and inversion, you’re at about 5 kWh/kW. The average home in San Diego needs about 6,000 kWh per year, or about 16.5 per day, so you’re looking at a 3.3-kW system to make 6,000 kWh per year. Incidentally, you’re right about San Diego rip-off rates. SDG&E charges an INSANE price for… Read more »

Polonius Sage
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Polonius Sage

This is why people don’t buy solar systems unless they just close their eyes and take a leap of faith. There’s more terminological confusion here than a Democratic Party convention. So, no, it’s not simple to explain these metrics, and that’s just the way utility companies, solar power companies, and government want it.

Lisa
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Lisa

I think I get it !!! So if my panels are generating 1000 W when I look at the reading, and they do this for six hours, I’ve generated 6000 W or 6kW. So if I do this for 30 days I’ve created 180 kWh, right?

Ben Zientara
Admin

You’ve got it right, Lisa! Numbers in the real world are never that cut-and-dried, as generation is constantly in flux, but when we look at production, we do it exactly like you did, as an average of kWh over time.

Mr GGP
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Mr GGP

WATT: A unit of power. (voltage x current). kWhr: A computational figure only; it is used by power companies to compute billings. EXAMPLE: A light bulb rated at 60 Watts is on continuously, consuming power that is billed at 10cents / kWhr. Since most billings are in kW hr (k=1000) increments, we must convert 60W into kWh: 60W/1000 = 0.06 kWh. NOTE: kWh is not a Watts/Power figure– it is just a figure to be multiplied by the TIME period (one month) AND the RATE (10c per kWhr) for use in a monthly billing, therefore, the final computation will be:… Read more »

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