When discussing renewable energy solutions, most people are familiar with the two most common sources: solar or wind power.
And while solar energy vs. wind energy is worth debating, it’s important to compare with respect to your particular use and location. Today, we’re going to break down solar vs. wind energy - cost, maintenance, and other factors to consider when you are trying to decide which direction to go for your own needs.
Remember: these answers can differ depending on your location. This is meant to be an overview of the debate and a “big picture” look at the two. There are no winners or losers here - just differences.
Your typical home use with a fossil fuel-backed grid on your utility bill is the definition of “zero maintenance”. And for many, this is enough to stay with your utility company rather than generate your own energy: your bill comes, you pay it, and you have electricity in your home. It’s as simple as that.
But is this fair? Can clean energy be low maintenance, too?
The answer: It sure can.
Standard solar panels really are low maintenance. You’ll probably have to check the connections on an annual basis. That could include cleaning the panels and tightening a few bolts. But even if you let the maintenance go, you’re probably going to be okay. Solar panels have no moving parts - it picks up the sunshine, converts it to an electrical current, and that’s it.
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A wind turbine does have moving parts, obviously. By definition, it has a fan that is moving, which is generating the electrical current. But for the most part, maintenance is low. Direct drive turbines, for example, have very little maintenance required. If a turbine has a gear box, there is probably a little more care needed. But the owner’s manual would include a maintenance schedule that you can follow. If you can maintain your car, you can probably maintain a wind turbine.
This is where you have the biggest difference in wind vs. solar energy.
Solar panels can be installed almost anywhere. Some opt for a ground installation. Most will install on their rooftops. Wherever there is a location facing the sun, you can install solar panels. You could put them on poles, or even on the side of a building. The options are pretty much endless, and you’re going to get a reliable electrical current from it.
Wind turbines are much less flexible. If you install a wind turbine within 500 feet of anything, it will need to be 30 feet taller than whatever it is. If you live in an urban environment or near any trees, you’re going to run into problems.
Plus, in many urban environments, there are laws in place for maximum heights for structures. And typically, there are just too many things in town that will block the wind. That’s why it is much more typical to see wind turbines out in the country. The average wind in a rural area far exceeds the wind in an urban area. So your installation will likely need to be outside of town.
This is where you see another big variance between solar and wind energy depending on your location, so the answer here is a bit muddier.
On the one hand, solar energy is fairly predictable. If the sun is out and your panels are placed properly, you’re going to get your energy generation. In many areas, sunshine is much more predictable than wind. In that case, solar makes more sense.
But on the other hand, there are plenty of areas where windy days are more common than sunny days, especially during certain times of the year. In those cases, a wind turbine is going to be more sensible.
You’ll need to consider the location and the climate before making a definitive choice here.
One aspect that rarely gets discussed is the noise levels of operation on renewable energy solutions. There is a huge discrepancy here between solar and wind, and that can play a factor, depending on where you want to install them.
As you would guess, solar panels do not give off any noise pollution. They are stationary panels, and they are silent during operation. If noise is at all a concern for you, go with solar panels.
Wind turbines can be much different. If you are dealing with higher wind speeds, turbines can get quite loud. Smaller turbines in particular, at high speeds, can be as loud as a lawn mower. If you aren’t interested in listening to the sound of a lawn mower running in the location in which you are going to install these turbines, then wind energy might not be a great choice.
The cost of wind vs. solar
A wind vs. solar cost comparison is not as simple as looking at the total installation costs. The cost of solar and wind energy needs to take into account the amount of energy produced as well.
So let’s look at the net system cost of a solar panel system and a wind turbine if both generate an energy output of 16,500 kWh annually.
To produce that level with solar power, you’ll need to install 44 solar panels. When you take into account tax credits and depreciation (in the case of commercial systems), the approximate cost for a system at that level would be around $8,700.
In an area with relatively decent wind exposure of 12 miles per hour on average, you’d need a 10 kW wind turbine to produce that level of energy. Again, after tax credits and depreciation in a commercial installation, your approximate cost would be around $22,000.
So, which is cheaper: solar or wind power? In an apples-to-apples comparison, solar power comes out ahead in net cost.
Does that mean that solar power is automatically the best choice in all considerations? Not at all.
As already mentioned, it does depend on the area you are installing the renewable energy source. In some areas, wind turbines make much more sense.
And while solar energy is the better choice on a smaller scale, wind energy makes more sense at a utility level. That means that, when you need to generate a lot of power reliably as a group (say, in a town, for example), it makes more sense to do so with a wind farm.
Your mileage varies in each case, but this should at least give you a good idea of the differences between the two energy sources, and why both are valuable pieces of the clean energy puzzle.