Wind vs Solar: Which is the better technology?

When thinking about renewable, alternative forms of energy available for residential use two sources come to mind: wind and solar. Both forms offer immense promise for reducing the current rate at which we consume fossil fuel and could be the fastest growing power source over the next few decades; however, is one better than the other? In order to recognize which system is more cost effective, we must first understand the nature of how they work.

Parts of a windmill

Diagram of the parts of a windmill

Wind generators have three components: rotor blades, shaft, and a generator. Wind generators takes advantage of the mechanical force air exerts on rotor blades and converts that   force into electrical energy through the generator. We’ve been taking advantage of wind energy for many years, after all it’s what we use to push sailboats! Proponents of wind power agree that it is a clean fuel source and cost effective depending on location.

Side by side mono panels

Side by side mono panels 60 cell (right), 72 Cell (left)

Solar panels take advantage of chemical rather than mechanical processes.  This occurs when silicon inside the panel is in an excited higher energy state and transfers electrons out of its shells by visible light. It’s often composed of a series of silicon cells which together forms a circuit. The current standard for a solar panel consists of 60 or 72 cell panels, usually sprayed with anti-reflexive coating to prevent light from scattering off the reflexive silicon surface.  The prefixes mono- and poly- refers to the silicon crystals from which it was manufactured from.  Monocrystalline panels are made from one silicon source.  These panels are often more expensive and more efficient while polycrystalline panels are made from different crystal sources and are often cheaper and less efficient.  However, recent upgrades to polycrystalline technology have made them as efficient as mono panels.  More recently, polycrystalline panels have been sweeping the market in photovoltaic standard due to its low cost manufacturing cost.

So which one should I purchase?

It all depends on your location.  For the average home in WNY, solar panels provide the most value for your money due to it having more yearly access to sunlight.  Maintenance costs are little to none due to the panels not having any moving parts for the 25+ year’s lifetime of the system.   Although, according to a recent survey provided by The Weather Channel Buffalo is listed amongst the top 10 windiest cities in the United States1. Wind turbines generally produce more energy with constant, sustained winds versus turbulent winds that are the result of obstacles such as trees and other buildings. When deciding on whether to go wind or go solar, think about the scale of the project.  For the average homeowner, solar is the most worthwhile investment, while wind is usually reserved for large commercial projects. Now is the best time to look towards purchasing a form of renewable energy, with the average upfront price to installing standard utility-scale projects dropping by more than a third since 2009 and continuing to plummet with support from our state and federal government.

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