Energy Transition

Solar vs wind power: The ultimate showdown

Solar power plant.

Which renewable energy is best to switch to? Image: Zbynek Burival/Unsplash

Karsten Neumeister
Expert, Ecowatch
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SDG 07: Affordable and Clean Energy

  • Two of the most popular renewable energy sources in the US, at this moment, are solar and wind.
  • But which will take the lead in 2022?
  • An expert weighs up the pros and cons.

History shows that advances in renewable energy often follow crises: In the 1970s, oil embargos caused the cost of oil to quadruple, spurring efforts to reduce American dependence on fossil fuels and find alternative sources of power, including solar energy or wind power. The 2008-09 global financial crisis led to several governments linking part of their economic stimulus to investment in clean energy. The COVID-19 pandemic led to an unprecedented energy shock, and following in 2021, investment in renewable energy reached the highest levels since the Great Recession.

Following crises in Europe, Western economies are once again reminded of the importance of energy independence, and demand for renewable energy sources has gone through the roof. Two of the most popular renewable energy sources in the U.S., at this moment, are solar and wind. Will either take charge as a leader in 2022?

Thanks to the decreasing cost of solar, the technology has never been more worth it for homeowners. Its ease for residential use allows customers to reduce their carbon footprint along with their energy expenses. But humans have been using wind for thousands of years, well before the modern wind turbine ever arrived. In fact, wind power accounted for 5% more energy generation than solar did last year.

So, as we enter the era of renewable energy, will either source of power come out on top? And if you’re considering making the switch to a renewable source of energy, which is better for your needs? Let’s explore.

History of solar vs wind power

We’ll start with a little background for color. The earliest recorded evidence of wind energy being used dates to around 6000 to 5000 B.C., when the sail was invented to catch the wind and propel boats. Over the years, developments in wind power allowed humans to grind grain, pump water, and eventually, around the late 1800s, generate electricity from kinetic energy.

One could argue that solar energy has been used since 700 B.C., when mirrors were used to concentrate solar energy to make fire. But solar cells were not used to generate energy until 1839, when Edmond Becquerel, a young physicist working in France, first observed and noted the photovoltaic effect. It took more than a century to produce a practical solar panel after Becquerel’s discovery. Solar energy remained in the research-and-development phase for several decades.

Fast forward to 1973 — oil shocks caused gasoline and oil prices to spike, spreading anxiety about the United States’ energy future. U.S. leaders grew increasingly curious about alternative, domestic sources of energy that would reduce dependence on foreign oil.

Coupled with mounting pressure from environmentalists, the ‘70s saw tangible federal support for renewable energy. To encourage its development, Congress passed the 1978 Energy Tax Act to provide tax credits for homes with solar panels and fund the development of large wind turbines. Solar was not cost-effective enough to take off quite yet, but wind turbines caught some modest gains in progressive states.

Over the next few decades, the share of U.S. electricity generation from wind grew from less than 1% in 1990 to about 8.4% in 2020. Solar energy’s share of total U.S. utility-scale electricity generation grew from 0.1% in 1990 to around 2.5% in 2020.

Graph showing solar vs wind power generation in the US.
Wind is currently outperforming solar in terms of energy generation in the United States. Image: Energy Information Administration (EIA)

Home solar panels

In 2022, modern solar panels are either installed on a roof or ground-mounted to convert sunlight into energy. Solar panels are made up of photovoltaic cells (or solar cells) that use the semi-conductive material silicon to create an electric current. The electricity that the panels produce is direct current (DC), and it is converted by an inverter into AC electricity, which is what we use to power our homes.

The best solar panels these days average between a power capacity of 250 to 400 watts, and the most efficient solar panels reach efficiency levels around 20%, meaning 20% of the energy that strikes the panel is converted into electricity. A typical solar array ranges anywhere from 10 to 30 solar panels (or more), with the average being around 20 to power an American household.

The average cost of a solar installation is between $20,000 to $40,000, varying with the complexity of an installation, location, and the size and energy needs of a home. This is a steep barrier to entry, and it remains one of the largest challenges to solar’s growth. However, for those able to afford the upfront cost or take out a solar financing loan, solar provides decades of energy savings and can top even $50,000 of lifetime savings in the right location.

Most homes with solar will remain grid-tied, meaning you won’t lose your connection with your local utility. However, off-grid solar can be used in small-scale applications.

Not only does residential solar help homeowners offset their electricity usage, but installations help homeowners lower their dependence on fossil fuels and public utilities, yielding a number of personal and community benefits.

Home wind turbines

Wind turbines can also be used to generate electricity. Rather than using the photovoltaic effect, the blades of wind turbines spin to turn an inner rotor. The rotor sends kinetic energy to a generator that converts it into AC electricity, similar to an inverter in a solar array. Also like solar, wind power can be grid-tied or the resulting energy can be stored in a battery.

Unlike solar panels, in the wind turbine world, bigger is better, as winds generally increase as altitudes increase.

According to the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, the hub height for utility-scale, land-based wind turbines has increased 59% since 1998, measuring about 295 feet in 2020 (about the same height as the Statue of Liberty). And the hub height for offshore turbines in the U.S. is projected to be even taller. Because turbines are so large, local zoning ordinances usually present challenges to residential wind installations.

This dependence on size contributes most to what differentiates wind from solar power. Wind power takes up far more space to be most effective, and as a result, most wind turbines are used on a commercial or industrial scale rather than residential. However, wind turbines harness about 50% of the energy that passes through them, compared with the 20% efficiency of the top residential solar panels. And unlike solar panels, wind turbines can produce energy at any time of day, making them very effective when implemented properly.

In closing, location is key for wind as a source of energy. Wind turbines work best in large expanses of land without trees, buildings or other obstructions. States like Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Kansas and Illinois are leading the nation in wind energy, and coastal states such as Virginia, Massachusetts and New Jersey have invested heavily in offshore wind power, a promising avenue for growth.

Benefits of solar panels and wind turbines for the home

Though the road has been bumpy with squeezed supply chains and inflation, the cost of renewable energy technologies is near the lowest it has ever been, eclipsing that of traditional sources like coal and natural gas. Solar and wind installations continue to grow exponentially, and technological advances and low costs have made residential clean energy sources extremely in-demand.

Generally speaking, however, wind installations are in almost every case used on a commercial or industrial scale, while solar has proved its value in the residential market. Let’s go over the biggest benefits and drawbacks of each.

Pros and cons of solar power

As mentioned, solar panel installations offer tremendous opportunities as a residential-scale energy source. Here are the main reasons why:

Pros and cons of solar power.
The pros and cons of solar power. Image: Ecowatch

Pros and cons of wind power

Wind power, rather, is much more practical at the utility scale.

Pros and cons of wind power.
The pros and cons of wind power. Image: Ecowatch

So which is better, solar or wind power?

Wind power currently outpaces that of solar when it comes to overall share of electricity generated. For homeowners, solar energy is a far more practical option.

What it really comes down to, however, is location. In the world of energy, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Intelligence is a species’ ability to live harmoniously in its environment, using the energy sources most logical for that region. We would never expect solar power to outpace a source of energy like hydropower in regions like the Pacific Northwest. Just like we wouldn’t expect wind power to take off in dense urban areas like New York City.

The future of energy is a decentralized one — one where energy is generated and consumed locally. For homeowners looking to make tangible changes in their lives to work toward a more sustainable future, solar power offers a wonderful opportunity to make a difference. Wind power may not present the same opportunities for homes, but it will surely be a huge part of the collaboration of renewable energy sources in the efforts to reach a net-zero-carbon future.

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