There are many sources of renewable energy, but most of them are not going to be practical for home use any time soon. For example, it’s unlikely that the average person is going to set up a hydroelectric or geothermal generator in their backyard any time soon.
However, it is possible to buy small wind turbines for your home, in the same way you can buy solar panels to put on your roof. If you live in a windy part of the world it might seem like a great idea to buy a few wind turbines and slap them around the place. While small-scale wind turbines have come a long way, they have plenty of drawbacks and pitfalls.
So in this article I want to talk about the relative advantages and disadvantages of the two technologies.
Mixing it Up
The first thing you should know is that, depending on where in the world you need power, it’s often the case that a mix of both gives the most balanced power delivery. After all, there are windless sunny days and then also cloudy windy days.
There is not clear winner in this case and you’ll have to make a judgment call based on climate.
Location, Location, Location
Where you put your solar panels is, of course, very important. They have to be in an optimal spot to get the most sun possible. Some people even set them up to track the sun all day.
While getting solar panels installed in exactly the optical spot isn’t easy, finding the right place to put a wind turbine isn’t simply a case of finding a windy area and setting up shop. The biggest enemy of a wind turbine is turbulence. Turbulence can be created by all sorts of things. Being near buildings is a prime example. Incoming wind hits the buildings first and then the scattered turbulence thrashes the turbine around without making much power. Placing turbines where the wind is coming from all sides also makes them less effective.
People also often underestimate how high wind turbines have to be in order to work properly. Typically, they are mounted on poles that are about 10 meters high. So obviously just sticking them on your roof won’t help much.
On a large scale, wind turbines are often a better choice than solar panels, unless you’re in the desert. You can put them in open fields or even in the ocean, where the noise won’t bother anyone and there are no obstructions to create turbulence. Closer to home, however, those advantages are eroded, and in most cases a solar solution will be easier to maintain and more effective.
Yes I know, I’m Captain Obvious. In case you didn’t know, solar panels stop working at night, while winds can be present all the time. In some places, nightly winds are even stronger. This is not a problem in general if there is enough sunlight during the day. If you live in a place with good sun in the day and strong winds at night, combining both types of energy could be worth it if you are happy with the special maintenance needs that wind power brings to the table.
Reliability and Maintenance
Solar panels are a form of solid-state technology. This means that they don’t have any moving parts. It’s one of the reasons they last so long. Wind turbines, on the other hand, are nothing but moving parts, which means they will wear out relatively quickly. It also means you have to perform maintenance on them regularly; most likely by using a professional.
Once again, this is getting better and better. However, no device with moving parts will ever last as long as a solar panel. That being said, all sorts of crud accumulates on solar panel surfaces, and when it starts to affect the amount of power you’re getting, you’ll have to clean them off. This is not a problem if they were mounted on the ground, but roof installations pose a bigger risk. On the other hand, wind turbines need to be mounted much higher than roof height. Either way, if you have a fear of heights, budget for a professional’s help.
Unless the rest of your equipment is in bad shape, a solar panel installation shouldn’t make any noise that would bother you. Wind turbines do, however, make some noise. It’s much, much better than it was just a few years ago though, especially if it’s mounted at the height that it should be. It’s a good idea to get some sense of the noise levels that a particular turbine produces and how far away it will be from anyone who could get annoyed by it.
Depending on how you personally feel about it, it may be a point of contention that wind turbines pose a certain level of risk when it comes to flying animals. Insects, birds, and bats might fly into the spinning blades and get hurt or die. This is a problem not associated with solar panels.
Light and Air
I don’t want you to think that because this site focuses on solar power that I am blindly pro-solar. In fact, I’m a fan of the right renewable in the right place. The truth is that in most cases solar is still the best overall option for home users. Even when the cost and complexity of wind turbine technology makes it more attractive, solar is going to remain a part of the mix. I don’t see the majority of off-grid home installations being wind-only for the foreseeable future, if ever.
Unless you live in a very dark, yet windy, place, my main recommendation would be to start with solar and then add wind power later if you need to. Doing it the other way around just doesn’t make a lot of sense at the moment.