What is Best? Solar Energy or Wind Energy?


Let us compare the two.

They are both renewable. Their impact on the environment is minimal. Everyone should be striving for a sustainable, off-grid energy solution. Both solar and wind provide viable options in this regard.

As a homeowner weighing your options, you should focus on proper, balanced, objective research. That is what we set out to accomplish through this article. We are comparing the two renewable energy solutions on several accounts.

  • The efficiency of solar panels and wind power. How much electricity do they generate?
  • Where does solar/wind power work best?
  • How much does it cost to install solar panels/wind turbines?
  • Are wind turbines available for the public?
  • What are the kWh costs of solar/wind energy?
  • The disadvantages of solar/wind power generation.
  • Is solar or wind the future?

Before we delve deeper into this comparison, let us set straight a few universal truths.

  • For residential energy consumers, solar panels make more sense.
  • Wind turbines, on the other hand, suit utility companies looking to give renewable energy a larger share in their portfolios.
  • If you own a large enough property, you can consider wind power as well. Otherwise, it makes less economic/practical sense for you.

Why is solar energy a superior solution for residential consumers? Solar panels require minimal maintenance. According to an Inland Power and Light Co. study, solar also produces more energy than wind, on the residential level.

The engineers of the company found it surprising that their solar panels turned in five times more electricity than their wind turbines. The experiment took place over 14 months, in the West Plains of Washington state, where people expect the wind to blow all the time.

The systems used in the experiment were a bank of solar panels and a wind turbine. Both were of the type recommended for residential use. The turbine was a 35-foot (10.66m) one.

More surprising than the detailed findings was the fact that solar trumped wind even during the short winter months.

Of course, placement is an important variable for wind turbines as well as solar panels. In an area falling under heavy shade for whatever reason (trees, mountainside, etc.) a wind turbine might outperform solar panels.

Solar panels produce more electricity for residential users than wind turbines. Thus the score is 1-0 for solar.

The Efficiency of Solar Panels versus Wind Turbines

Solar panels can convert into electricity some 15-20 percent of the solar energy that hits their surfaces. Cutting-edge solar panels, such as some multi-junction solutions with concentrators, offer superior efficiencies in the 23-44 percent range. Boeing-Spectrolab and Solar Junction panels are such experimental, high-efficiency solar panels.

Cutting-edge technology is more expensive, however, so as a residential power consumer, you will likely go for mono-crystalline or polycrystalline panels in the 14-25% efficiency range.

Efficiency-wise, wind turbines take the cake. They can absorb as much as 50 percent of the kinetic energy resulting from the wind. In some cases, their efficiency may even reach the 60 percent mark. That said, there are certain limitations linked to the electric generators attached to wind turbines. These limitations bump efficiency down to the 40-50 percent range.

That is, however, still far superior to the efficiency of solar panels.

Why do solar panels deliver more electricity then, if their efficiency is inferior to that of wind turbines?

Most turbines need a fair amount of wind to start producing. The wind is much more capricious, however, than one would think. The wind sometimes dies down for days. During such times, turbines do not generate electricity at all.

Solar panels, on the other hand, generate some electricity even under less-than-ideal circumstances.

Still, mathematically, wind turbines are more efficient than solar panels. The score: 1-1.

Where Does Solar/wind Power Work Best?

Another advantage of solar panels is that sunlight is available everywhere. In some places, it is more intense and abundant than elsewhere. Solar panels do, however, generate electricity even under a cloud cover.

That said, to make the most of your solar panels, you need to place them in direct sunlight. Your geographic area also matters. Past certain latitudes, solar panels deliver way less electricity than ideal. In such areas, the use of solar panels may not be feasible.

Unlike sunlight, the wind is not readily available everywhere. Geography is, therefore, an even bigger factor from the perspective of wind energy. Obstacles/windbreaks are the biggest enemies of the wind turbines.

  • Tall buildings.
  • Mountainsides.
  • Trees.
  • Hills.

 …will kill the usability of wind-based electricity generation. Thus it is safe to say that wind power is more finicky than solar power. The score: 2-1 for solar.

How Much Does it Cost to Install Solar Panels and Wind Turbines?

Cost is always a major factor in any feasibility equation. We have discussed and broken down the costs of solar panels in much detail here. In the UK, for a family of three, the average solar solution costs about GBP 4,000-6,000. A 4kWp system can cost as much as GBP 8,000.

A 4 kW wind turbine is a reasonable solution for powering a home. 5-6 kW systems exist as well. These are mostly pole-mounted turbines.

Home-mounted turbines cover the 1-2 kW size range. The cost of wind power systems depends on the size of the turbine. The inverter and batteries for off-grid use also add to the price.

According to energysavingtrust.org.uk, the cost of a pole-mounted, 6 kW system, is in the GBP 21,000 – 30,000 range. A smaller, also pole-mounted, 2.4 kW system, will set you back by GBP 9,000-19,000. These costs include 5 percent VAT. They do not, however, include the cost of batteries you may also want to install.

Building-mounted turbines are cheaper. Their efficiency is severely limited, however. This does not make them suitable for anything more than hobby use.

Solar panels are a more affordable renewable energy solution than wind turbines. This is yet another reason why solar panels are more suitable for residential use.

The score: 3-1 for solar.

Are Wind Turbines Available for the Public?

As mentioned, there are scores of wind turbines available for residential use. When choosing a residential wind turbine, you should consider the following variables.

  • Rated power. You need a turbine powerful enough to provide your home with the electricity you need.
  • Wind speed at rated power. The lower the wind-speed you need to attain rated power, the better.
  • The diameter of the blades. The larger your blades are, the more space your system will take up.
  • Tower height. You need your turbine high enough to avoid windbreaks.

Here are a few examples of what you can find in terms of residential wind turbines in the UK.

Skystream 3.7 is a 2.4 kW, low-end solution in terms of power. It needs wind-speeds of 13 m/s to deliver its rated power. The diameter of its fan is 3.72m. It comes with three different mast/tower options: 10.2m, 13.7m, and 18.3m. A turbine like this costs GBP 4,700-GBP 5,000. We should note that winds above 13m/s do not generate additional power, over the rated power of the turbine.

The Eoltec Scirocco is a larger system, delivering more than double the power of the Skystream, at 6 kW. With a blade diameter of 5.6m, this turbine delivers its rated power at wind speeds of 12m/s. The available mast heights for this system are 12m and 15m.

C&F Green Energy is a 15kW monster, which delivers its rated power at wind speeds of just 8m/s. The 13.1m diameter blades would hardly fit in crowded residential areas, however. The system goes atop a 20m mast. C&F produces smaller wind turbines as well.

The Aeolos V 10kW wind turbine costs some GBP 20,000. This system is a vertical axis solution. It starts producing electricity at wind speeds of just 1.5 m/s. The diameter of the turbine is just 3m, which makes it suitable for use on homes. The system remains stable and steady even at wind speeds of 30-40m/s.

Other solutions, such as the Quiet Revolution Qr6 7.5kW, or the FutureEnergy Airforce-10, 10kW, may cost as much as GBP 44,000 and GBP 56,000 respectively, according to reneugen.co.uk. The sky is the limit cost-wise.

If you ponder the acquisition of a wind turbine, make sure you only consider MCS-approved devices. You will need MCS-approved devices to qualify for any FIT-like scheme in the future.

What Are the kWh Costs of Solar/Wind Energy?

With the above in mind, we can state that a 5 kW wind turbine of reasonable quality, will cost around GBP 16,000. For that money, it will generate electricity worth some GBP 6,500- GBP 10,000 per year. Its per kWh annual production cost is, therefore, around GBP 2 – GBP 1.6. Assuming that the wind turbine lasts for 10 years, we are looking at average kWh costs in the GBP 0.2 – GBP 0.16 range.

Despite the increased costs, larger turbines drive these costs further down.

A 7 kWh solar system costs about as much to install and its annual kWh production costs are roughly similar as well.

Wind turbines have moving parts, however. Thus, their maintenance costs are much higher than those of solar panels. Aside from the occasional cleaning, solar panels do not require much maintenance.

According to wind turbine installers, most turbines are like race cars. They need constant tweaking to keep their production optimal. This constant attention translates to additional costs.

Due to the moving parts, the expected lifetime of a wind turbine is shorter than that of a solar panel array. This might be the reason why wind turbines come with five-year warranties.

All this considered, the lifetime of a wind turbine is about half the lifetime of a solar panel system. Thus, the cost per kWh with solar is about half the cost per kWh with a wind turbine.

Thus, in the battle of kWh costs, solar panels win hands-down. The score: 4-1 for solar.

The Main Disadvantages of Solar/wind Power Generation

Both renewable energy generation methods carry some disadvantages. Let us compare them from this perspective as well.

Solar panels are easy to maintain and relatively simple to install. That said, they may require a sizable initial investment.

  • Cost. Although cheaper than a wind turbine system, solar panels can cost quite a lot.
  • Power production is weather-dependent. Solar panels do generate some power in overcast weather, but their efficiency is far from ideal under such conditions.
  • Solar panels do not generate power at night. This is quite a problem in the winter when the days are short and the nights are long.
  • Solar panels take up space. Granted, this space is on the roof in the case of residential users. Roof space does not have many other potential uses. Some residences may not have roofs large enough to accommodate the number of solar panels needed.
  • The storage of solar energy is expensive. This is not a disadvantage that is exclusive to solar panels, however.
  • When solar panel makers manufacture their products, they use hazardous materials. They also release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The transportation and installation of solar panels also result in greenhouse gas emissions.

The disadvantages of wind turbines are more numerous.

  • The wind blows at night and during the winter. That said, it is a very capricious energy source. It may stop for no apparent reason. Sunlight is much more reliable than wind.
  • Wind turbine maintenance is costly. Wind turbines are intricate mechanical devices with moving parts.
  • Positioning wind turbines properly is a cumbersome task. They need to be high up to avoid obstructions. Placing them atop high masts may not always be an option in residential neighborhoods.
  • Wind turbines require planning and special permits.
  • Turbines may be noisy. This is yet another problem for residential users.
  • Some geographical areas are entirely unsuited for the harnessing of wind power. And there is nothing one can do to change that.

Wind has one advantage over solar: the fact that it can generate electricity at night. For a while, wind turbines were cheaper than solar panels. That equation has changed, however, with spectacular price drops in the solar industry.

Solar panels have far fewer disadvantages than wind turbines at this point. The score: 5-1 for solar. 

Is Solar or Wind the Future

The future of solar energy certainly looks bright. Much brighter than the future of wind energy even.

That said, a combination of the two is what will likely dominate the energy markets of the future.

According to the BNEF New Energy Outlook 2019, by 2050, a combination of solar and wind energy, accompanied by expanded storage capabilities, will cover some 50% of the world’s energy needs.

These needs will increase by 62% by then. With that in mind, the expected domination of wind and solar is all the more impressive.

The two renewable energy solutions are complementary in some ways. That would explain why experts expect them to head into the future hand-in-hand.

In the future, solar energy may cover some needs. Wind could be used as a solution filling gaps in the energy needs of your home.

Solar vs Wind Head-to-Head Comparison

To wrap up our comparison, we have created a table showcasing the pros and the cons of both renewable power sources.

Operational costsLowLow
Maintenance costsLowHigh
Is production predictable?YesNo
Operational noiseNoneSome
Does it work in off-the-grid areas?YesYes
Does it work in dense residential areas?YesNo
Does it work night and day?NoYes
Does it work in low light conditions?NoYes
Does it require a lot of space?Depends on system/needsYes

The Bottom Line

While solar and wind are set to dominate the future together, from the perspective of practicality and cost, solar currently trumps wind. Our comparison has yielded a score of 5-1 in favor of solar energy.

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