We are living in an exciting time for energy production, with renewable sources of electricity such as wind and solar swiftly expanding across the world. These green methods of production allow us to harness the power of free, never-depleting sources of energy such as the sun and the wind, all while creating zero carbon emissions. Read on to learn more about the advantages of solar panels and wind turbines, and decide for yourself if there is an answer to the question of which is better, solar or wind energy?
How Does Solar Energy Work?
You may have seen solar panels on rooftops and perhaps even a solar farm, with acres and acres of black, shiny panels hoisted on racks. Inside these panels are photovoltaic cells, and their job is to turn light into electricity. These cells function by transforming photons from sunlight into electrons. When the electrons are passed through a semiconductor, it creates a current that can be made into electricity. Another less common form of solar energy is solar thermal, which concentrates the sun’s rays on mirrors to heat a fluid (usually water). The steam from that fluid powers a turbine that makes electricity. Or heat your water.
The State of Solar Power
In the world of renewable energy, solar is booming. During the past decade, material costs have decreased by more than 60 per cent and counting. Because it’s cheap, more people and jurisdictions are interested in solar.
Despite COVID-19 pandemic, more than 260GW of renewable energy capacity was added globally in 2020, beating the previous record by almost 50% ref
Total solar capacity has now reached about the same level as wind capacity thanks largely to expansion in Asia (78 GW) in 2020. Major capacity increases in China (49 GW) and Viet Nam (11 GW). Japan also added over 5 GW and India and Republic of Korea both expanded solar capacity by more than 4 GW. The United States of America added 15 GW.
Solar remains the fastest-growing source of electricity generation. Solar is not only fast-growing, it has nearly unlimited potential. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, building photovoltaic panels on just 0.6 per cent of the nation’s total land area could supply enough electricity to power the entire United States. 0.07 per cent of the total land area could supply the world!
What Are the Advantages of Solar Energy?
When you stack up solar’s upsides next to other energy sources, it has a rather impressive list of advantages:
- While solar systems take up land space, they don’t always have to. Panels can be mounted on rooftops, making them well suited for urban areas.
- Rooftop solar also lends itself to distributed generation, as opposed to centralized, making for a more diverse and resilient electric grid
- Solar is silent, which makes it ideal for more populated areas.
- There are no moving parts, and therefore it needs less maintenance than wind.
- The energy is easy to generate and transport.
- Panels work in cold climates, as air temperature doesn’t matter as long as the panels are catching rays.
- Home rooftop panels can reduce a homeowner’s electricity costs. During a heat wave, when energy loads are high, this would definitely be an advantage.
- Once you install the panels, power generation is nearly free. You don’t have to pay a penny for sunshine.
What Are the Challenges of Solar Energy?
Solar isn’t a cure-all for our energy needs in and of itself, however. You’re only capturing energy during the daytime, and production levels can vary depending on how clear the sky is. Furthermore, while battery technology is advancing rapidly in its own right, we haven’t yet attained an optimal way to store the amounts of energy that would be needed to power large population centers when the sun isn’t offering optimal production. For now, we still rely on other energy sources on cloudy days or after dark, although a variety of promising storage systems are under development.
How Does Wind Energy Work?
Wind turbines generate electricity using similar principles as fossil fuel production, just using a different fuel source. If you look at the wind turbine, the electricity is being made at high altitude, right inside the cylinder shape behind the rotating blades. The wind pushes the blades into motion, which turns a shaft. This chain of motion eventually leads to a generator that makes electricity. The electricity then travels down the stem of the turbine and is taken to transmission lines to be transported and distributed to customers.
The State of Wind Energy
Wind expansion almost doubled in 2020 compared to 2019 (111 GW compared to 58 GW last year). China added 72 GW of new capacity, followed by the United States of America (14 GW). Ten other countries increased wind capacity by more than 1 GW in 2020. Offshore wind increased to reach around 5% of total wind capacity in 2020.
Much like with solar energy, the costs of building wind turbines are continuing to fall. And thanks to better technology and engineering, taller turbines can harvest wind more reliably, boosting their capacity.
What Are the Advantages of Wind Energy?
Wind energy also has an impressive list of advantages:
- Wind energy is a clean fuel source, meaning it doesn’t pollute the air like power plants that rely on combustion of fossil fuels.
- Wind turbines can be built on farms and ranches, so leasing available land can become a source of income in rural areas while the owners can still use the land for other purposes.
- Wind power is cost-effective. Much like sunshine, wind costs nothing to produce.
- It is a domestic source of energy, and the nation’s wind supply is abundant.
What Are the Challenges of Wind Energy?
The biggest problem wind production faces are the cost of transporting the energy generated, as the windiest areas are usually remote. In addition, like solar, wind is an intermittent power source, so you can’t count on turbines to provide energy around the clock. Also, wind is less ideal for residential use for two reasons. One, turbines make noise. While the models are getting quieter, your home turbine may be frowned upon by neighbours, your homeowner’s association or even your city. And in order to generate any significant amount of electricity, you would have to erect a taller turbine — up and away from wind-blocking buildings and trees and other urban obstacles. That too may not make you the most popular person on the block.
The Future of Renewable Energy
It’s important to know the difference between wind and solar energy, but fortunately, we don’t need to choose one over the other. All types of renewable energy can be used to complement each other, depending on what types of production are available in a given geographic location, and overcome the weaknesses of any one method.
Although the renewable energy industry has experienced great growth in the past decade, coal and natural gas are still generating the lion’s share of the electricity for the world Even so, experts predict renewable energy will replace fossil fuels by 2050. In the meantime, watch for developments that will help renewables overcome their challenges of storage and capacity