Solar vs. Wind Energy: Which Alternative Energy Source is Right for You?


When it comes to power generation, wind and solar power are the two most popular choices. We often discuss the differences with our clients at Firebrand Safety Systems as frequently our Napa, Marin, and Sonoma County neighbors are interested in alternative power sources in event of a fire or power shutoff. As improvements in both renewable energy technologies continue to make alternative power sources more obtainable than ever, you may find yourself faced with the difficult choice of solar vs. wind. While both options are sustainable environmentally friendly alternatives, there are several important differences between them.

  1. Efficiency – The most efficient solar panels can convert approximately 22-23% of sunlight into useable power. Wind turbines, on the other hand, convert up to half of the wind energy they harvest into electrical power and, unlike solar panels, can produce power 24/7. As impressive as this sounds it’s important to remember that, depending on the area, wind energy is not as predictable as sunlight. In fact, over a 14-month period one energy company in the Pacific Northwest recorded solar panels producing five times as much energy wind turbines.

  2. Cost - Which is cheaper, wind or solar? The answer isn’t exactly simple. For one thing, you need to compare installation costs to the amount of energy that will be produced by each respective power source. Let’s compare the cost of a solar panel system and wind turbine system if both generate an annual energy output of 16,500 kWh for a commercial installation. Accounting for both tax credits and deprecation, a solar power system producing at that capacity will cost approximately $8,700, while a 10 kW wind turbine in an area with decent wind exposure will run around $22,000. So from a direct cost comparison, solar power clearly comes away with the win, although the comparison is more complicated on a large scale level.

  3. Installation – Installation is probably the single greatest distinguishing factor between wind and solar energy. While solar panels can be installed nearly anywhere, wind turbines are much less flexible. If a wind turbine is installed within 500 feet of any object, it must be at least 30 feet taller to ensure unobstructed wind flow. Finding this much space is usually problematic in an urbane setting, especially in light of laws restricting the maximum height a structure can be. On top of that, there are usually too many wind breaks for turbines to operate at maximum capacity in urban areas making rural areas the far preferable choice.

  4. Maintenance – With no moving parts, solar panels are blessedly simple. They absorb sunlight and convert it into an electrical current—the end. As a result, maintenance is minimal. Mainly it involves checking the panel’s connections annually, cleaning them periodically, and tightening an occasional bolt. Wind turbines, on the other hand, obviously do contain moving parts. Still, maintenance is still relatively low—especially for direct drive turbines. Turbines with gear boxes will require more care, and will likely include a regular maintenance schedule in the owner’s manual. However, if you can maintain your car you can most likely handle maintaining a wind turbine.