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The Solar vs Wind Debate: Which Power Source Is Better?
- Solar power is the energy obtained from the sun’s rays and converted into electrical or thermal energy. Wind energy is the process of air flowing through a wind turbine to automatically produce power by converting the wind’s kinetic energy into mechanical power.
- Renewable energy systems, such as solar and wind, can help reduce our reliance on oil and gas. These carbon fuels generate damaging greenhouse gas emissions that have a harmful effect on air, water, and soil quality.
- As with all energy supply options, solar and wind energy can have adverse environmental impacts, they can have implications for land use and local environments, come with visual and noise issues, and come with the additional problem of wind blades and solar panel disposal.
- Even with the known environmental impacts, replacing electricity produced from other sources (such as fossil fuel power stations) with solar and wind energy can take the lead to an overall reduction in carbon emissions.
- With governments making significant investments into a green energy fuelled future, there are also many opportunities for us all to invest in renewables, for example: investing in renewable energy shares, renewable investment trusts, and installing renewable energy systems at home.>
Solar power and wind power are considered the two primary types of renewable energy. Both clean energy sources significantly reduce pollution and have relatively low operations costs when compared to fossil fuel sources. The growing technological improvements, increase in competitive supply chains, and growing economies of scale are reducing the costs of solar and wind power. These same factors will also boost the availability of these core renewable power sources in varying weather conditions and even their viability during times of darkness.
With the right policies in play, the cost of power generated from solar and wind power technologies could considerably drop. The cost-analysis report from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) stated that, between 2015 and 2024, it could reduce by at least 26% and as much as 59%. The report also found that the global weighted average cost of electricity could fall by a minimum of 37% from concentrating solar power (CSP) technologies, by 59% from solar photovoltaics (PV), 26% from onshore wind, and by 35% from offshore wind, by 2025.
The world’s energy markets are meeting the competitive pressures to drive continual innovation for renewable advancements. While equipment costs will keep declining, reductions in balance-of-system, operation and maintenance, and capital costs are becoming increasingly important drivers for the overall cost reduction of renewables.
With all this in mind, when it comes to solar vs wind, which comes out on top? In this piece, we will review the pros and cons of the two big renewable players to look into whether one power source is better than the other. So, let’s try to get to the bottom of the solar vs wind debate.
What is Solar Energy and Wind Energy?
Remarkably, wind energy can also be regarded as an indirect form of solar energy.
Before we analyse which renewable energy source ticks the most boxes, it is worth having a grasp of what solar and wind energy are in the first place. To many, a wind turbine is a large structure standing dominantly in the skyline, and a solar panel is a shiny surface flickering in the sun. Let’s get down to basics, and learn some of the fundamentals.
Solar energy explained: Solar power is simply energy derived from the sun’s rays which is converted into electrical or thermal energy. The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) describes that solar energy can be produced by photovoltaics, concentrating solar power, and solar heating and cooling. Here is a short description of the three forms of solar energy creators:
- Photovoltaics (PV): This is a term most people associate with solar power creation. It is the process of converting light into electricity using semiconducting materials, such as cadmium telluride (CdTe) and copper indium gallium diselenide (CIGS), that demonstrate the photovoltaic effect. This photovoltaic effect is commercially applied for electricity generation and as photosensors. The photovoltaic phenomenon is studied in physics, photochemistry, and electrochemistry.
- Concentrating Solar Power (CSP): This process uses the heat produced by the sun to run conventional electricity-generating turbines. Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) technologies use mirrors to focus the sun’s light energy and convert it into heat in order to produce steam to run a turbine that generates electrical power.
- Solar Heating and Cooling (SHC): To produce solar energy using solar heating and cooling technologies, it collects the thermal energy generated from the sun. The sunlight hits a dark material in a collector, which heats up. This type of solar energy generation can be used to provide hot water, room heating, cooling, and pool heating. It is used in domestic, commercial, and industrial applications.
Wind energy explained: Wind energy is the process of air flowing through a wind turbine to automatically produce power by converting the wind’s kinetic energy into mechanical power. The electricity produced by wind can provide power for utility grids, homes, businesses, as well as provide the energy to pump water and charge batteries. The three major forms of wind power are offshore wind, utility-scale wind, and distributed wind. Here is an explanation of each:
- Offshore Wind: Offshore wind power uses wind farms that have been built in large bodies of water, usually located in the ocean, to produce wind energy to generate electricity. Due to more significant and more consistent wind speeds, offshore wind farms have the ability to create more power and at a steadier rate than onshore wind farms.
- Utility-Scale Wind: Utility-scale turbines are typically defined as turbines that go above 100 kilowatts. These turbines are typically installed in large, multi-turbine wind farms connected to the national grid system.
- Distributed Wind: Distributed wind energy systems are the smallest of the three primary forms of wind energy. They are commonly installed on residential, commercial, industrial, agricultural, and community sites. Distributed wind systems can range in size from a 5-kilowatt turbine on homes to a multi-megawatt (MW) turbine on more industrial locations. They are defined by technology application, not technology size, and are typically smaller than 20 multi-megawatt (MW).
Remarkably, wind energy can also be regarded as an indirect form of solar energy. Winds are commonly described as being produced by a mixture of the sun’s uneven heating of the atmosphere, the irregularities of the Earth’s surface, and the Earth’s rotation. But let’s save this debate for another day!
What Are The Advantages of Solar Energy and Wind Energy?
The obvious plus of renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, is that they can help reduce our reliance on oil and gas.
Now that we have covered solar and wind energy basics, let’s look at some of the advantages these two clean energy sources offer. The apparent advantage of renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, is that they can help reduce our reliance on oil and gas. These carbon fuels produce harmful greenhouse gas emissions that have a detrimental effect on air, water, and soil quality. This contributes to climate change and environmental degradation.
Solar and wind energy also give consumers a bit of control of where their power is. These energy production methods provide homeowners and businesses with the ability to generate and store electricity on-site. It also gives them a ‘backup’ power source if any situation arises when traditional utility grids cannot fulfil their energy needs.
One example of when a utility grid could not fulfil energy requirements was during California’s 2020 wildfire season. Large-scale utility companies, such as PG&E, had to cut off power to tens of thousands of homes in an effort to prevent additional fires that may be linked to fallen power lines. In this case, solar energy generated on-site provides a reliable energy backup and helps fight climate change.
Solar panels, in particular, are easy to install and have created some potential energy bill savings. Governments have implemented tax breaks or energy rebates in some locations if they produce excess energy that can be distributed into the utility grid. For example, in Canada, there are at least 78 clean energy incentive programs that offer a combined total of 27 renewable energy rebates and 285 energy efficiency rebates.
Solar energy and wind energy are both set to become the world’s most affordable sources of energy. In the USA, the land-based utility-scale wind is one of the lowest-priced energy sources available. Due to the electricity from wind farms being sold at a fixed price over a long period of time (around 20 years plus) and the fuel is free, wind energy lessens the price ambiguity associated with traditional sources of energy. After the production tax credit has been put into consideration, land-based utility-scale wind costs as low as $0.01 to $0.02 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) in the USA.
The price of obtaining power from the sun is also dropping each year due to technological innovation. During the past decade, solar energy has been on a low-price trajectory. According to the US Department of Energy statistics, solar energy prices have dropped from $0.51 per kWh in 2010 to $0.15 per kWh in 2018. By 2030, the US agency estimates that solar costs will fall further, to $0.05.
The Potential Impacts of Solar and Wind Energy Projects
Replacing electricity generated from other sources such as fossil fuel power stations, solar and wind energy can lead to an overall reduction in carbon emissions.
As with all energy supply options, solar and wind energy can have adverse environmental impacts. In this section, we will explore some of the ways these renewable energy sources, when implemented at a utility-scale, can have the potential to reduce, fragment, or degrade habitats for wildlife, fish, and plants.
- Land use and ecological impacts: When large utility-scale solar power arrays are built, a large area of land is needed for the collection of energy. Due to the quantity of land required, the solar facilities can interfere with existing land use, and may affect the use of areas such as wilderness and recreational locations. There is also the risk of the solar manufacturing, extraction, exploration, and disposal of solar arrays, causing the energy footprints to become relatively high. When solar arrays are installed responsibly, all is done to cause minimal environmental impact, and the land can be returned to a pre-disturbed state.
Regarding large-scale wind farms, wind turbines can impact birds and bats through collision, disturbance, or habitat damage if they are inappropriately located. When wind energy projects are being planned, environmental risk assessments should be completed concerning the location being considered. Wind turbines should be installed away from major migration pathways, hedgerows, trees, and other vital habitats. By avoiding turbines being located close to bird migration pathways and essential habitats, it minimises impacts on bird and bat populations.
- Visual and noise impacts: In regard to solar panels, many people consider them to be a visual burden. The selected area for a solar array should aim to avoid affecting the naturally aesthetic aspect of landscapes. It is crucial that natural beauty and habitats are maintained. It is best for solar installations to be on predominantly flat land, well-screened by hedges and tree lines. This will help to not cause unnecessary visual impacts to nearby domestic properties or roads.
There is little noise involved in generating solar power once the array has been built. During the construction process, there can be some significant noise impacts, especially if pile-driven foundations are proposed. Where pile-driven foundations are proposed, consideration should be given to the noise impact in nearby areas. Difficult ground conditions may also require drilling, which can also be destructive.
For wind farms to retrieve the greatest possible output from the wind, turbines are required to be higher than the nearest surrounding structures. Consequently, there is a visual impact, whether the turbines are located in the open countryside or a populated area. The visual impact can be reduced by not installing them in sensitive landscapes, positioning them thoughtfully to take notice of views from sensitive locations, and making the most of natural screening landscape features, such as hills and trees.
Noise from wind turbines can also be a contention for some, especially in rural areas where there is little. There have been some significant advancements in modern turbine design, and they now produce minimal noise. On very windy days, much of the noise often attributed to nearby turbines is actually the wind itself, such as rustling trees.
- Disposal waste impacts: There is a problem regarding recycling solar panels. One of the main issues is there are not enough places to recycle old solar panels. There are also not enough non-operational solar panels to make recycling them economically attractive. It is essential the materials used to make solar panels are recycled, as they contain precious or rare metals. All solar panels are composed of silver, tellurium, or indium, and these recoverable metals may be going to waste. Not recycling solar panel materials properly could result in resource scarcity issues in the future.
The recycling of wind turbine components is also an issue. Fibreglass blades in particular, may be problematic to dispose of. Once the blades have been decommissioned at the end of use stage, or when a wind farm is being upgraded (a stage known as ‘repowering’), the blades need to be disposed of or recycled. While it is possible to cut these huge blades into pieces on site, it is challenging and expensive to transport them for recycling or disposal. The majority of blades are stored whole in various places or taken to landfills. There are some emerging fibreglass recycling innovations, and with much needed regulatory pressure and market incentives, 100% recyclability should be achieved in the future.
Even with all the above being brought to light, replacing electricity generated from other sources, such as fossil fuel power stations, with solar and wind energy can lead to an overall reduction in carbon emissions. With the potential of renewables displacing fossil fuels to power the world by 2050, what does the future look like for solar energy and wind energy?
The Future of Solar Energy and Wind Energy
Due to the impact COVID-19 has had on global energy markets, the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources may also be fast-tracked by many years.
Even with all the above being brought to light, replacing electricity generated from other sources such as fossil fuel power stations, solar, and wind energy can lead to an overall reduction in carbon emissions.
The future of both solar and wind energy look positive. The Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC) states between 2020 to 2024, 355 gigawatts (GW) of new capacity will be added. This signifies a compound annual growth rate of 4%. For this to be a success, government support is vital as it will allow market-based growth. Developing markets and offshore will play a more significant part in pushing the global wind energy market. Offshore wind energy is projected to increase from 6 GW in 2019 to nearly 80 GW in 2024. This will bring its market share in global new installations from 10% in 2019 to 20% by 2024.
As for solar power, a report brought out in 2020 by the World Energy Outlook declares that solar energy is now less expensive than coal. Alongside wind energy, solar power is anticipated to make up 80% of the global electric energy market by 2030. Solar energy could quickly become the star of the world’s electricity markets. Based on current policy settings, it is on course to achieve new records for deployment every year post-2022.
Due to the impact COVID-19 has had on global energy markets, the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources may also be fast-tracked by many years. According to recent projections from Lux Research, state renewable energy technology innovation and the implementation of low and zero-carbon infrastructure have economic relief packages containing trillions of dollars. Lux Research also foresees COVID-19, resulting in accelerated investments in energy storage and power-generation projects by 2025.
Ways to Invest in Solar Energy and Wind Energy
Investing in the renewable energy sector is an exciting prospect and one that is expected to change our daily lives as energy moves away from oil and coal to alternative sources.
With many governments around the world pledging to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, many countries are racing to become world leaders in green energy and renewables. In the UK, for example, the government has launched a new scheme called Build Back Greener. It aims to increase jobs and reduce carbon emissions. The government has vowed to invest £160 million into the plan to boost offshore wind capacity.
With governments investing heavily in renewable energy, how can you also get involved in the growing renewable energy or environmental businesses? Here are a few ideas to get you thinking about your next green investment:
Investing in renewable energy shares: You could look into buying shares directly in renewable energy or a solar power company. Some of these firms may not be listed on the solar power stock market, so they can be tricky to find.
- Renewable Investment Trusts: Investment trusts can be an alternative to buying shares directly. This method allows investors to pool their funds together to purchase shares in companies that are typically listed on a stock exchange. These trusts are usually regulated by a fund manager.
- Installing solar panels or domestic wind turbines: To receive direct benefits from renewable energy, you can install a domestic renewable energy system to power your home. There are some upfront investment costs, but many make this amount back, and save on energy bills from generating their own energy and selling the surplus back to the central power grid.
Investing in the renewable energy sector is an exciting prospect, and one that is expected to change our daily lives as energy moves away from oil and coal to alternative sources. As with all investments, there are risks. Investors should be mindful that the renewables sector is still developing, along with its commercial capability, and the associated technologies are still emerging. Still, what could be better than investing in a brighter, greener future?
Even with the known environmental impacts, generating energy from solar and wind does not release any carbon emissions. By replacing electricity produced from other sources, such as fossil fuel power stations, solar and wind energy can take the lead to an overall reduction in carbon emissions.
From looking at both renewable sources, it is clear that both solar and wind are needed to power the future. They both have their place in world energy generation, and we should be doing all we can to move towards clean energy and improving renewable innovation.
Are solar panels or wind turbines more expensive to install?
Solar panels are cheaper than wind turbines per kilowatt-hour (kWh). Not only is solar a less expensive way to generate power, but solar costs less when it comes to long-term maintenance. This is because wind turbines require more upkeep due to their many moving parts (which are often prone to breaking).
Like solar panels, can you put a wind turbine on a roof?
Although there have been cases of wind turbines being mounted on rooftops, it might not be the best place for it. All wind turbines vibrate slightly, and they will spread the vibration to the building on which it is mounted. This can also cause noise problems within the building, which no one wants in their home or business.
How much of the world’s energy comes from renewable energy?
Renewables made up 26.2% of global electricity generation in 2018. That’s projected to rise to 45% by 2040. Most of the increase will likely come from solar, wind, and hydropower. In 2017, 18% of the energy consumed globally for heating, power, and transport came from renewable sources. Nearly 60% of that was produced by a form of modern renewables, such as solar and wind energy.
Is it possible to power the whole world with renewables?
The question of whether we can power today’s world with renewable energy should more accurately be asked about the world in 2040 or 2050. By 2050, the world population will likely have exceeded 9 billion people, and a greater proportion will have achieved modern living standards. This could result in the need for at least twice as much energy as the world uses today. To achieve running on 100% renewable energy, we will need to reduce our energy consumption, and continue to focus on developing renewable technologies.
How many different types of renewable energy are there?
The two main types of renewable energy are solar energy and wind energy. There are, however, also hydropower, biomass, geothermal, and tidal energy generation methods. Although all these different forms of renewable energy can be used, currently, the most efficient forms of renewable energy are solar and wind, followed by geothermal, hydroelectricity, and biomass.