Solar vs. Wind Energy: Which Wins Out?

Topic: wind farm extension Read Time: 14 mins
Landowner type:
Independent landowners | Institutional landowners
Energy:
Onshore wind | Solar
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If you’ve been looking for a rundown of solar vs. wind energy, then you’ve come to the right place. Our ultimate comparison will help you decide which energy source is right for you (in the home and on the commercial stage!).

Renewable energy is becoming a major player in the global energy scene. With an impressive 41.4% of the UK’s energy coming from renewables in 2022, it’s close to taking over! But if you’re curious about which source wins out in the solar vs. wind debate, we’ve got you covered.

In this deep dive, we’ll compare home and commercial solar vs. wind energy to see which is most efficient and effective. So, it doesn’t matter whether you’re considering starting a wind farm or want to fit your home with solar panels. You’ll get everything you need to know right here.

A Brief History of Solar vs. Wind Energy

Now, we’ve already delved deeply into the history of wind energy (which started with windmills in the Netherlands in the 1590s!). But when it comes to solar power, things started much later.

Edmond Becquerel was using solar cells as early as 1839 (he was a young physicist!). But Augustin Mouchou invented the world’s very first solar energy system. Concerned that the world’s supply of coal would eventually run out, he invented a solar device that he showcased at Paris’s 1878 Expo. The invention was a Solar Concentrator that converted solar energy into steam power.

If you’re wondering how it worked, it involved using parabolic troughs to heat water that would produce steam. This would then drive large water pumps to supply water to arid desert areas.

And hey, if we’re really arguing, we could say that solar technology existed as early as the 7th Century BC. They didn’t produce electricity per se, but mirrors were used alongside the sun’s heat to light fires.

What Is Wind Energy?

In basic terms, wind energy is created when dedicated turbines capture the kinetic energy of wind. When the wind flows through the rotor blades, the rotation converts this energy into mechanical power. A generator then converts this mechanical energy into electrical energy (which can go to the grid!). The exact amount of power produced will depend on the speed of the wind, the size of the turbine, and weather conditions.

Photo showing wind turbines

When you’re on higher ground with faster wind speeds, you’ll naturally be able to harness more wind energy! And in case you’re wondering, commercial wind farms use underground cables to move energy to a transformer substation. These transformers then transport this energy to electricity companies, homes, factories, large buildings, and anywhere else that requires energy!

Wind is an amazing source of renewable energy as it’s inexhaustible, doesn’t use fossil fuels, and doesn’t contaminate. But we’ll dive more into that later.

What Is Solar Energy?

Solar energy is any type of energy that’s created from the sun’s rays and usually relies on solar panels. It’s a clean and infinite energy source that creates no greenhouse gas emissions. So, as long as the sun continues to shine, we’re able to harness and benefit from solar energy. Just FYI, solar panels are made from silicon (or another semiconductor) that is installed in a metal frame inside a glass casing.

picture of yellow quotation marks

When this material is exposed to photons of sunlight (very small packets of energy) it releases electrons and produces an electric charge.

National Grid

This charge then creates an electric current which is then captured by the wiring in solar panels (typically in DC form). This DC electricity is then converted to AC (or alternating current) by a dedicated inverter.

Solar panels shouldn’t be confused with solar thermal panels, which are designed to generate heat. After all, we’re talking about electricity here! You’ll typically find solar panels on residential properties, but you may also see solar farms dotted around the country.

These are large areas of land that contain interconnected solar panels that are positioned over several acres. They are capable of large-scale energy generation that’s fed directly to the grid. In case you were wondering, residential panels will usually just power a home, as there are far fewer of them.

Commercial Solutions vs. Home Solutions – Why the Distinction Is Important!

When we’re weighing up arguments in the solar vs. wind debate, we must make a distinction. And that distinction relates to commercial vs. home solutions. Simply put – they’re not the same. 

And this is because home solutions are typically smaller in scale and output than commercial projects. This is partly down to the cost of large commercial-scale projects.

But it’s also related to the sheer amount of land that wind farms and solar farms need to function properly. You just won’t find that kind of space on your average residential property! Because we feel that scale is incredibly important to recognize in the solar vs. wind debate, we’ll be assessing them separately.

The Pros and Cons of Commercial Wind Energy

Pros

  • It’s a clean and renewable resource that’s incredibly cost-effective.
    • The only time wind energy might produce greenhouse gases is during the building, construction, and decommissioning phases.
  • It allows landowners to lease their land in return for a payment (land rent) arrangement with their site operators.
  • Long term, it’s an excellent economic resource as it can reduce the cost required to run large-scale operations (once the initial investment is paid off!).
  • Advances in technology mean that wind energy is now extremely efficient.
    • Newer wind farms are more sophisticated, require less regular maintenance, and are far quieter and commercial turbines are becoming increasingly sleek and more attractive?
  • On the whole, it doesn’t cause massive disruption to surrounding farmland as commercial turbines are largely space-efficient.
  • It reduces a global reliance on fossil fuels by creating enough energy to power large parts of a country.
  • Building wind farms (and maintaining them!) can boost employment in the engineering and construction sectors.
  • It’s a viable alternative to nuclear power which uses approximately 600 times more water than wind power.

Cons

  • The initial start-up costs can be significant for developers as commercial structures can be over 100 feet tall.
  • The average commercial wind turbine is placed in a rural area, which means placing underground lines for power transference. This may bother local residents as they’re being installed.
  • There’s a chance that large commercial turbines can be a danger to wildlife.
    • For example, migratory birds can occasionally fly into the path of rotor blades. But you could also argue that skyscrapers, planes, and even modern theme parks pose the same issues!
  • Locals can argue that wind power is a source of visual and noise pollution.
  • Even the largest turbines can experience intermittent wind energy, which makes it somewhat unreliable at times.
    • In reality, it’s tricky to predict exactly how much wind energy a single turbine will create. And if there isn’t enough wind to power the rotor? It simply won’t spin or produce any energy.
    • It’s also important to mention that extreme weather could damage or impact your turbines, leaving large areas without power (if it’s the sole energy source!).
  • Commercial turbines depend heavily on location.
    • You need to be in a relatively high-wind and high-altitude part of the country to get adequate wind flow.

Download Your Ultimate Guide to Setting Up a Wind Farm on Your Land

The Pros and Cons of Commercial Solar Energy

Pros

  • Solar farms are typically found in agricultural areas which means that they’re minimally disruptive to surrounding homes.
  • It’s a sustainable and clean form of energy (as sunlight is a completely renewable source of energy).
  • Compared to wind energy, solar panels are almost entirely quiet.
    • At most, they emit a light buzz or murmur sound that is undetectable to most ears.
  • Solar farms are largely low-maintenance operations that need semi-yearly cleans and irregular checkups.
    • They tend to be easier to maintain and manage than large wind turbines as they feature fewer moving parts.

Cons

  • Building solar farms can cause a lot of noise pollution through drilling, road access, and the general comings and goings of setup.
  • The sun won’t always shine brightly enough in the UK to produce immense amounts of energy.
    • Although solar panels function with cloud cover, smaller yields throughout the year can be problematic.
    • Plus, solar energy can be particularly unreliable during the winter months because of lower light levels and shorter daylight hours!
    • Overall, this can cause a problem for grid operators as they’ll need to find alternative sources to make up the shortfall.
  • Solar farms sometimes require tricky-to-find substances like Cadmium Telluride (CdTe) and Copper Indium Gallium Diselenide (CIGS) to operate properly.
    • As these materials can be difficult to find, the initial setup costs of solar farms can be extensive.

The Pros and Cons of Wind Turbines for Homes

Pros

  • Wind is generally quite plentiful in the UK which makes home wind turbines a decent long-term investment.
  • They are a low-carbon alternative to traditional energy sources that you can generate on your own property!
  • Wind turbines can save a large amount on your overall energy bill.
  • You can usually recoup the initial investment required to build a turbine within a few years (if that!).
  • There’s a chance of qualifying for tax incentives.

Cons

  • The initial cost of installing a home wind turbine can be significant (between £12,500 and £23,000 for the average turbine).
  • Wind turbines generally require quite a bit of land and are usually only suited to larger properties.
  • Some areas don’t allow turbines in residential areas, meaning you’ll need to have the right planning permission.
  • There’s a chance that you don’t live in an area that produces enough wind to make the investment worthwhile.
  • As wind turbines typically operate at a 30% capacity, generating enough energy to power your home can be tricky.

The Pros and Cons of Solar Energy for Homes

Photo showing solar panels

Pros

  • Solar panels can save you a significant amount on energy bills across their lifetime.
    • According to The Eco Experts, the average solar panel system will cost £7,860 but save you £608 a year!
    • This depends on how much energy your panels produce and how much energy you use. But overall, you’re almost guaranteed to save something over the lifetime of your solar panel setup.
  • Most homes in the UK won’t use all the solar power they produce, giving them the chance to benefit from the Smart Export Guarantee.
    • This gives houses with solar panels the chance to sell their energy to the grid.
  • It’s a clean and effective form of energy that prevents 1.6 tonnes of carbon dioxide from going into the atmosphere every year.
  • They’re largely silent as there are no moving parts (like you’ll get with wind turbines!).
  • You can easily scale things up by adding panels to your home at any time.
    • Solar panels are arranged side-by-side, making it extremely easy to link in additional panels.
  • Residential solar panels don’t need to be checked on regularly – they just need to be kept clean and unobstructed!
  • Solar panels allow homeowners to be energy independent.
  • It’s thought that solar panel technology will only improve in the coming years, making them even more efficient.

Cons

  • Solar panels usually run at 15% capacity which makes electricity production difficult at certain times of year.
  • Installation can be expensive and take up a lot of roof space.
  • Not all roof configurations are appropriate for solar panels as you need a lot of roof space.
    • You’ll also need to make sure your roof tilts at a 30–45-degree angle and faces southward for optimal results.
  • It’s largely weather-dependent as more energy is produced with stronger rays.
    • They can produce an incredible amount of energy on clear and sunny days. But if you’re dealing with cloud cover (and the unreliable British weather!), you may struggle).
  • Pigeons love them, which can be a problem if you’re trying to keep your panels maintained and free from obstructions.
  • If you plan to move house at any point (or remodel), these panels will need to be removed.
    • Unfortunately, this comes at quite a hefty cost as you’ll need to carefully transport and reinstall the panels.
  • It can take up to 13 years to break even on your solar panels (based on the £608 savings amount per year).
  • Solar energy needs to be used near-instantly or stored.
    • Unfortunately, storage solutions can be expensive and require quite a lot of space.

So, What’s the Consensus on Solar Vs. Wind?

Now that we’ve run you through the crux of the solar vs. wind debate, let’s settle the score. Is solar energy or wind energy BETTER? Well, it depends. Both are clean and renewable forms of energy that contribute significantly to the UK’s overall energy makeup. But there are a few factors we need to consider further to make that all-important final decision.

Factors to Consider

Scale and output (large-scale vs. residential)

The first thing we’ll think about is scale. On the whole, commercial and home wind turbines are generally more effective and reliable than their solar counterparts.

Large-scale turbines typically produce around 2.5 to 3 MW, while typical solar panels generate 200 – 350 kWp of energy (in strong sunlight). This might not be the fairest comparison, as a turbine is far more powerful than a single commercial solar panel. But overall, the number of solar panels required to produce the same amount of wind energy is significant. And when you account for how much space this requires, there’s a clear winner on the commercial side.

When it comes to residential turbines and panels, we’d say that they’re relatively equal. However, what is better in the solar vs. wind debate here depends on what you’re after. If you want to save space on your land, solar panels may be a better option (if your roof is suitable, of course). And if you don’t want a roof covered with panels, a single turbine could be a good choice.

Location and efficiency

Okay, so the efficiency of solar vs. wind depends almost entirely on how well they convert energy and where they’re located. If you’re in a particularly sunny area with virtually no wind, you’re going to have a far better time with solar panels. And this applies to both commercial and residential turbines!

If you’re in a relatively high-altitude and high-wind area with lots of cloud cover? Well, you’re going to get better results with wind turbines.

Photo showing wind turbines in the dessert

It’s said that the most efficient solar panels can convert approximately 20-22% of energy from sunlight into electricity. On the other hand, wind turbines can convert between 30% and 45% of energy into usable electricity. This can increase to approximately 50% during peak wind periods.

Now that’s quite the difference and swings the dial in wind’s favour in the solar vs. wind debate! As it’s far easier to capitalise on wind power as a developer, it’s no surprise that commercial wind farms tend to be more popular projects.

Reliability

Speaking of location and efficiency, these factors can significantly impact the reliability of wind and solar energy. The time of year and general weather conditions affect both types of energy. For example, reduced daylight hours during the wintertime will severely impact solar energy production.

Similarly, lower wind levels throughout the year could impact wind turbines (though this is harder to predict). Overall, both energy types can still be produced under less-than-ideal conditions (yep, solar panels don’t need direct sunlight).

But in the grand scheme of things, we’d say that wind energy just clinches things in the solar vs. wind argument. Not only does 40% of Europe’s wind energy floats over the UK’s shores, but there IS some form of wind throughout the year.

Noise

When it comes to noise, solar panels are the clear winner. With a lack of moving parts compared to wind turbines, they’re virtually silent. Although wind turbines produce murmurs and whirrs that are around 30 dB, it’s louder than your average solar panel. So, it’s clear who wins out on the noise front if we’re comparing solar vs. wind! But we will say that wind turbines are generally more suited to rural areas in terms of location. And this might explain why noise is generally more of a bugbear for locals (as it’s more likely to be heard).

Cost-effectiveness

When it comes to upfront costs and maintenance, things are slightly more complicated than they might appear. As we discussed earlier, the upfront costs of both wind turbines and solar panels are relatively similar. Overall, wind turbines are slightly more expensive but can save you a considerable amount over time.

Picture of a wind farm.

The average home turbine has a lifespan of 25 years, and a well-site turbine can produce around 9,000 kWh per year.

This could save you upwards of £610 on electricity over a year. If we take the same figures for solar panels that we’ve talked about (a saving of £608 a year), things are pretty even. We will say that the maintenance costs for solar panels tend to be far less than the average turbine. So, bear this in mind.

FAQs

How many homes in the UK have solar panels?

As of 2023, it’s said that 1.2 million homes in the UK have solar panel installations. That’s roughly 4.1% of the UK’s homes that are currently kitted out.

How big are solar panels?

Solar panels are typically around 2 metres long by 1 metre wide with an overall thickness of 3cm-5cm. It can vary based on the manufacturer, though.

How much electricity does a 4KWp system generate?

In most cases, a 3kW or 4kW solar panel system will be large enough to supply energy to a home at 3,400kWh per year.

How much sun is needed for solar panels (and do panels need to be in direct sunlight?)

Luckily for Brits, solar panels don’t need direct sunlight to work and can produce power even on cloudy days. But it’s worth mentioning that the stronger the sun is, the more electricity your panels will generate.

How are solar panels rated?

Solar panels are generally rated according to the watts that they generate. If you have a higher wattage, your solar panels will produce more power. This is measured in kilowatt-hours, just FYI.

How much do home wind turbines cost?

According to Check a Trade, the average freestanding 5kW turbine will set you back £23,500. If you want a smaller 2.5kW turbine, you should expect to pay £12,500.

Are home wind turbines worth it?

Home wind turbines are worth it if you live in an area that’s served by reliable wind at a high enough speed (at least 6.26 m/s). In these cases, a wind turbine can eventually pay for itself and save you money on energy. But if you don’t live in a high-wind area, you might be throwing money down the drain.

Can a small wind turbine power a house?

We’ll say that the answer to this question largely depends on the amount of electricity you need. The average small wind turbine is ideal if you want to generate your own electricity without connecting to the grid. But in terms of how large your turbine is, we’d say that a 1.5kW turbine will meet the needs of a home needing 300 kilowatt-hours per month. If you’re using a larger turbine, you’ll naturally produce more energy.

How many solar panels does it take to equal the power of a wind turbine?

If you say that a home wind turbine produces approximately 5kW per day, it would take around 24 panels to reach the same output. In some cases, it takes around 10 solar panels to generate the same amount of wind – but we’d say this isn’t overly common.

How do you get rid of pigeons under solar panels?

This is a question that’s more geared toward residential properties, but there are several steps you can take. You can install solar panel pigeon mesh to start, install bird netting, keep your garden clean, and keep on top of panel cleanliness. In short, you’ll be trying to dissuade pigeons from nesting there (or giving them anything to eat on your roof).

There you have it: the ultimate guide to solar vs. wind power that should fill you in on everything you need to know.

If you have any further queries about solar vs. wind, feel free to reach out to the team. We can help advise you on what renewable energy could do for your property (and your wallet).

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