Wind Energy Lags Behind Solar Power

Paul Pogue
Written by Paul Pogue
Updated April 10, 2015
wind power
Wind power peaks during evenings or storms, when demand for power is lower. (Photo courtesy of XZERES)

For wind power to work well in a residential setting, it needs much space and a free-flowing breeze.

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Renewable energy sources, such as geothermal heating, solar power and wind energy, garner a great deal of attention and federal investment, but experts in the field say the advances in solar and geothermal technology make wind power a less desirable residential energy solution.

Ben Valley, design consultant with Independent Power Systems in Boulder, Colorado, says wind power works best in off-grid circumstances or more remote areas. “If you have a lot of open space and a really windy area, it’s a great idea,” he says. “And if that’s not the case, it’s a terrible idea.”

Wind power continues to work well on a commercial scale, Valley says, where large wind farms generate enormous amounts of electrical power. Residential use of wind power, however, has dropped in the past few years as solar power has become more efficient.

“If I were advising a friend, I would 100 percent recommend he go with solar,” Valley says. “And I went to school for wind energy production!” In fact, several companies contacted by Angie’s List said they used to offer wind power, but have converted completely to solar in recent years.

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Zoning and location play a role

Joe Morinville, owner of Energy Independent Solutions in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, says wind power can generate tremendous amounts of energy, but logistics sometimes interfere with establishing an effective windmill or wind turbine.

“As with any alternative energy, if you have enough space, you can generate 100 percent of the energy needed for your home,” he says. “But your area has to have the right resource. Not everywhere is conducive to wind power.”

A windmill needs to be placed at least 30 feet in the air, often on its own independent tower, so your yard must contain enough space for the tower’s height on all sides. “The height has to be short of the property line, so in the event it falls over, it won’t cross into someone else’s property,” Morinville says.

Anthony Stonis, owner of Building Energy Experts in Crystal Lake, Illinois, notes the moving parts and continual pressure of wind power add other challenges that don’t hamper solar. “The systems work better on their own pole and tend to generate more efficient energy,” he says. “Also, your home’s roof wasn’t really designed for that kind of pushing and pulling pressure.”

How do wind power costs compare with other sources?

Valley also points out that the pole and windmill include moving parts that will eventually need to be serviced, which means the work may be more expensive since it requires climbing high into the air to reach them. He says wind systems require annual maintenance, and sometimes require repairs every one to five years.

As with solar and geothermal power, wind energy qualifies for the 30-percent tax credit available on residential renewable energy systems installed through Dec. 31, 2016. Various state and local programs offer further subsidies.

Stonis says a mid-sized wind power unit costs about $15,000 to install. Depending on the amount of wind in your area, he says a homeowner can expect such a unit to cut energy usage by about a third. In general, according to Morinville, wind systems cost about 30 percent more than solar systems capable of generating the same amount of power. Valley says in some cases, a wind generator will cost up to twice as much as a comparable solar power system.

Wind is most effective in the right location

Homeowners in the right circumstances may find wind to be a very effective energy solution, Morinville says. “If you’re way out in the country or on a mountain, and you’re getting free-flowing, uninhibited wind, it’ll generate quite a bit of power,” he says.

Valley agrees that wind can exceed solar power if conditions are just right. “We have a wind turbine up in Montana in one of the windiest places in the United States, and it generates as much power as a 20-kilowatt solar system,” he says. “It was built for 3 kilowatts, but it runs so hard and often that it cranks out that much power. So for them, it’s a hell of a good deal, since a 3-kilowatt wind system costs less than a 20-kilowatt solar system. However, most of the time it doesn’t work that way.”

One other downside of wind energy: Utility companies pay homeowners for the excess energy they generate back into the grid, and they value solar power much moreso than wind. Solar systems generate energy during hot, sunny days, when the energy grid is experiencing peak usage. Wind power peaks during evenings or storms, when demand for power is lower.

“In Pennsylvania, the clean energy credit for wind is about one-thousandth of what solar is, because the energy is in so much less demand,” Morinville says.

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