Renewable Energy Series: Solar Vs Wind
Legendary oilman T. Boone Pickens called the US the Saudi Arabia of wind and when you see maps like this, you understand why.
As the Earth spins toward the west, it slides underneath the air in the atmosphere, giving it from our perspective a generally eastward direction.
That easterly wind sweeps over the rocky mountains and then rushes back down across the Great Plains, creating one of the largest wind corridors in the world.
And in the last 10 years, investments in commercial wind energy have boomed across the United States. Economies of scale have started to kick in, causing the price of wind turbines to drop.
They also cost little to maintain and operate and help create energy independence for smaller communities and provide a revenue source for local ranchers who lease out the land to the energy companies.
And they’re more space-efficient. On the ground they take up very little space and those ranchers can still use the land below them for agriculture.
Plus it’s a large growth sector for jobs and currently employs over 100,000 people, expected to rise up to 600,000 in the next 30 years.
And there’s a reason I saved saved solar for last. Because there’s something different about solar from all other forms of energy, clean or dirty.
Photovoltaic solar panels, or PV panels, have no moving parts.
Every other energy source creates electricity by using heat or steam or water or wind to turn a turbine. Solar literally just collects the energy coming out of the sun and repurposes it.
When asked if he was interested in fusion power as a source of energy, Elon Musk famously said that we already have a massive fusion reactor in the sky just feeding us energy every day. All we have to do is collect it.
Now there are some negatives to solar power, let’s just get that out of the way…
First the obvious one, there’s no sun at night, so solar power is intermittent. But intermittent more like tidal energy than wind energy because we know the sun will be coming up every day.
And even in cloudy weather, it is producing something.
They take up a lot of land, unlike wind farms mentioned earlier, if you have a solar farm, you can’t use that for other things.
But, you can also use existing infrastructure like buildings and transport corridors.
The big hangups come in the construction of the solar panels because there are some hazardous materials used that need to be properly disposed of at the end of the panel’s life span.
And some PV panels require rare Elements like those found in cadmium telluride (CdTe) or copper iridium gallium selenide (CIGS), which is all the more reason to recycle the panels properly.
Luckily, 96% of a solar panel can be recycled. Unfortunately, the recycling infrastructure for solar panels is pretty small, but expected to grow tremendously in the next 30 years.
But the one that gets the solar haters the most worked up is that producing solar panels does generate greenhouse gasses. Specifically nitrogen trifluoride and sulfur hexafluoride. And yes, that sucks.
But the argument that we should stick with something like coal because PV panels create greenhouse gasses is frankly absurd.
Because with the solar panels, it’s a one-shot deal and then you’re getting clean, free energy for the next 20 or 30 years, while coal is constantly pumping out greenhouse gasses that whole time.
This debate was laid to rest by Wilfried Van Sark of Utrecht University in the Netherlands. In a paper for the trade Nature Communications, he and his team calculated the amount of greenhouse gas emissions created by PV panel production all the way back to 1975 to see how long it would take before they made back their debt.
I didn’t even mention the other type of solar energy, concentrated solar thermal plants.