ince the Earth is running out of fossil fuels and the pollution level is frightening, switching to renewable energy sources has become the burning issue of our day. For those willing to contribute to a green transition, as well as save some money on electricity bills, wind and solar are the two most popular choices; together, wind turbines and solar panels produced 10% of the world’s electricity in 2021.
But which option is actually better, solar panels or wind turbines? Well, there’s no single answer to this question – it all depends on your individual case. This article covers the major pros and cons of solar panels and wind turbines to help you make the right decision.
Back to basics: how do solar panels and wind generators work?
Wind turbines operate on the same general principle as windmills. Blades capture the kinetic energy of the wind and convert it into electrical power. Solar panels function pretty much the same way – solar cells capture the sunlight and convert it into electricity. Both solar power and wind power are intermittent, and both have specific locations where they will work better than others.
When is it right to choose wind power?
A wind turbine is as effective as the amount of wind it receives. The more it gets, the more power it will produce. Therefore, it is worth installing turbines only in places with strong and steady winds, such as open rural areas. It doesn’t mean it won’t work if your site is not particularly windy, but it will not be that efficient.
Not only are the climate conditions of your area important, but also the height of a tower plays a considerable role – to be effective, they need to be situated high above any obstacles that would block the path of the wind (a minimum tower height of 65 feet, or 20 meters). Moreover, there should be a good distance between them and other buildings so that they won’t cause any damage in case they fall, and the neighbors won’t be troubled by the noise they create. In the United States, the windiest area is the Great Plains. Turbines are much less widespread on the East Coast, where the wind is not sustained, and more nearby obstacles block it.
Solar energy statistics indicate a rapid growth in installations, with plummeting costs and increasing efficiency, driving widespread adoption globally.
When should you opt for solar power?
The sun is an abundant energy source that is available all over the world. Solar power can be generated practically in every place exposed to the sunshine for most of the day. Of course, sunnier states like Arizona and California allow solar panels to generate more electricity from the sun than the states like Washington, with a lot of cloudy days.
But don’t think that you live in a desert to install solar panels. In fact, solar modules function with little less efficiency when they are overheated, so cooler temperatures are even preferred. Year-round sunshine isn’t a must either – modern solar systems work reasonably well in cloudy weather.
In most cases, solar panels are installed on the roof, though sometimes on the ground. The requirements are pretty mild – your roof has to have some free space and be unobstructed by shade from nearby trees or buildings. Also, it should face south to capture maximum sunlight.
Solar vs. wind advantages and disadvantages
Aside from the location, which is logically one of the first things that come to mind comparing solar and wind power, let’s look at some other significant aspects in-depth.
Turbines are more affordable to install. Overall, solar turns out to be cheaper
Speaking about a price tag, it costs roughly $2.19 per watt to install solar energy, while wind energy costs only $1.50 per watt. For example, a 10 kW solar power system could cost around $21,900 after incentives, and a 10 kW turbine may cost about $14,700 after incentives. Thus, primarily because of the initial hefty price tag of solar panels (though solar is getting cheaper), wind turbines are much more popular in the United States, especially for commercial applications (43,2% vs. 11,4% of renewable energy in the year 2021).
However, although turbines may be less expensive to install, they are much more costly to maintain than solar panels. Due to the fact that a wind energy system has large moving parts, there are quite a lot of things that can go wrong, so the lubrication system is vital to keep that machine working well. The maintenance of wind turbines usually takes place once or twice a year. One of the pros of a solar panel system is that there are no moving parts, so fewer things can go wrong. Solar panels also need to be maintained, though less frequently and at a lower cost.
Solar manufacturing is not net-zero. Whirling blades can harm wildlife
There is no doubt about the following: both solar and wind are certainly to be considered environmentally safe. Electricity produced from solar and wind yields no emissions. There is a little but – manufacturing solar panels may have environmental downsides as it requires some caustic chemicals such as sodium hydroxide and hydrofluoric acid. Wind power produces an emission footprint of just 4 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent per kWh produced compared to 6 grams for solar (and 78 grams for gas, or 109 grams for coal). However, wind turbines can negatively impact wildlife, destroying some animals’ natural habitats, and their blades sometimes collide with birds.
Solar is slightly less effective. But is your area windy enough?
The most efficient solar panels can convert about 23% of the sunlight they absorb into power. It is not bad for a renewable energy source, but wind turbines turn roughly 50% of captured wind into power. Looking at these basic figures, wind energy appears to be more than twice as efficient as solar energy. Still, a wind energy system would make sense for householders only if they have a large plot of land and live in an area with a lot of strong and sustainable wind that can power the turbines.
Final verdict: in general, solar ‘wins’
In order to go solar, you don’t need to have much space; the sun is shining everywhere, unlike the wind, which is blowing only in some regions, typically in rural areas. The installation cost is higher for a solar panel system, but over the years, you would pay less for the energy generated with solar panels than wind turbines. So it is not surprising that solar appears to be a more popular choice than wind among homeowners.
Can you combine solar and wind?
The most common hybrid renewable energy system combines rooftop solar panels and a small or medium-sized residential wind turbine. Combining solar and wind power is possible, but it is the most practical with large plots of land available.
Is solar better for you?
Both wind and solar are excellent options to consider. Solar power generally offers more advantages, but it isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Make your decision based on the unique features of solar and wind energy sources. Think of your geographical location. Calculate your electricity expenses. Assess your current financial situation. And, of course, get some professional advice.