Primary energy flow

Figure 1. Sunlight is a crucial part of life on Earth. It's also a flow of energy from the Sun to the Earth, providing most of the energy for other flows as well like wind and hydropower.[1]

A primary energy flow (or within the energy education site primary flow or just flow) refers to natural processes with energy that can be extracted and transformed in a useful way. Primary energy flows include solar radiation shining on the Earth from the Sun, or water flowing downstream in a river. The energy in these primary flows can be harnessed to provide energy services such as home heating, transportation and electrical generation.[2]

Primary energy flows are one of two broad types of energy humans harvest from nature (primary energy), the other being primary fuels. Just like with primary fuels, most of the energy in the Earth's primary energy flows come either directly from the Sun or indirectly from the Sun (see Earth's energy flow). Primary flows tend to be diffuse (low energy density) which can lead to surprising environmental impacts. It is difficult to compare the energy density or environmental impact of primary flows to fuels (see primary fuel vs. primary flow). When people talk about energy conservation, usually they mean using less of the energy from these primary flows or fuels (see fuel conservation).

Primary energy flows include harnessing wind power, solar power (both photovoltaic and solar thermal), hydropower, wave power, tidal power and geothermal power. Because flows take advantage of energy in Earth's systems, flows tend to replenish their energy supply. This is why flows are usually thought of as renewable, and often sustainable (see renewable and sustainable energy). Despite this, it is possible to use primary flows unsustainably, which has specifically been a problem with geothermal energy.

At the moment energy accounting only keeps track of primary flows that are used for harnessing power for power's sake like generating electricity. There's a fair amount of power taken from primary flows that don't get formally accounted for. For example sailing ships use wind and many ships using tides (which is different from the electrical generation of tidal power). The largest flow used is of course sunlight, and the biggest way that's used is by keeping the Earth at a comfortable living temperature.

The amount of energy from sunlight is enormous, but mostly it goes towards keeping the atmosphere at a livable temperature, evaporating water for the hydrologic cycle and driving wind. Because this total flow of solar energy is thousands of times greater than the total energy use by humans many people advocate for using more solar energy. The difficulty with this energy is that it's delivered over a very wide area (it's very diffuse) and impossible (and expesnive) to catch it all, but it is there.

By formal reckoning, primary flows provide only a small fraction (~5%) of today's primary energy, see figure 1. Almost all of this energy is going into electricity generation. Due to peculiarities of thermodynamics, primary flows generate practically no waste heat (using fuels in a heat engine creates waste heat). All the energy successfully harvested from the primary flow is used for generating electricity (see Betz limit for why not all of the energy can be harvested for wind power). This means that despite being only ~5% of the primary energy, flows make up ~20% of electrical generation, the bulk of which is hydro and with wind being the second largest contributor. Different countries have very different energy mixes, please see electricity generation for a detailed map of where different countries get their electricity from.

Figure 1. Only a small fraction, shown as the extracted pie pieces, of the world's energy comes from primary flows. Most of this energy comes from hydropower, although a small fraction is wind power, solar power, geothermal energy, and tidal power. Since primary flows usually go into electricity, the percent of electricity generated by primary flows is ~20% (still mostly hydro) because flows don't have the same limitations of having a thermal efficiency's that heat engines have and flows are used almost entirely for electricity generation.

Potential confusion

People occasionally confuse energy flows with other concepts that are related:

  • Electricity is flowing energy, but it is not a flow in this sense. Electricity is produced through energy transformations from primary energy. It's not itself a primary energy form but an energy currency.
  • Heat is flowing energy. Specifically, it's thermal energy flowing from hot to cold. This is tricky, because there are times when heat can be considered a primary energy source, when taking geothermal energy from the ground. Likewise, when using the Sun's heat, that would be a flow. When something is merely hot and giving off heat, like a fire, that's not a flow.
  • There are also material flows, which aren't energy at all. This refers to how certain materials, like metals, move through the world's economy. This isn't primary energy, so it's not a flow.


  1. Pixabay. (May 20, 2015). Sunlight [Online]. Available:
  2. Wolfson, Energy, Environment and Climate, Second edition. New York, USA: W.W. Norton, 2010