Thermal power

Figure 1. Thermal power is supplied by a fuel to a boiler.[1]

Thermal power is a measure of power given by the exchange of heat in a system over time. Thermal power is supplied by fuel to a system, such as a power plant or heat engine, most often with the goal of achieving useful work. Thermal power can be a measure of input, such as the heat input to a boiler in a power plant in order to generate electricity, or it can be a measure of the output, such as the radiant heat given off by the Sun.

For power plants, the thermal power input is measured in megawatts thermal (MWt), which is to be distinguished from the electric power to the grid that is output that is measured in megawatts electric (MWe).[2] Since not all of the input heat can be converted entirely into electricity (see Carnot efficiency), the MWt value will always be larger the the MWe value. The comparison gives a power plant its thermal efficiency, which is a measure of how much useful work it can achieve for the amount of fuel it had to burn. Most older power plants are around 33% efficiency,[3] so the input thermal power is 3x more than the output electrical power.

Not all power plants require thermal power in order to generate electricity, plants like hydroelectric facilities, wind turbines, or photovoltaic cells use other forms of power from different energy flows to create electricity. Therefore thermal power is only used for thermodynamic systems. Although the thermodynamic limits do not apply for these plants, such as the second law of thermodynamics and Carnot efficiency, they do have other factors that limit their efficiency.


  1. Shehal Joseph via Flickr [Online], Available:
  2. R. Wolfson, "Energy and Heat," in Energy, Environment and Climate, 2nd ed. New York, U.S.A.: Norton, 2012, pp. 86-87
  3. EIA, What is the efficiency of different types of power plants? [Online], Available:

Authors and Editors

Jordan Hanania, Kailyn Stenhouse, Jason Donev