What is the Difference Between Wind Energy and Solar Energy?

- March 29th, 2018

What is the difference between wind energy and solar energy? Both are heavy hitters when it comes to cleaner methods of energy and power.

When it comes to clean alternatives for energy and power, wind and solar power are considered the two primary choices.

Both methods of greener technology cut down on excess pollution and have minimal operational costs–which are attractive reasons to make the switch to either one of them alone–but there’s certainly more to wind and solar energy than that. The question is, what are their differences and advantages–and which one is the right choice for you?

Here, the Investing News Network (INN) provides a very brief introductory into wind and solar energy, what their differences are and their future outlooks.

Experts forecast the cleantech market will reach US$350 billion in 2020.

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What are wind energy and solar energy?

To better understand what the differences between wind energy and solar energy, we must first look at what they are on an individual basis.

Putting it simply, wind energy is the process of air flow through wind turbines to automatically generate power. As defined by the Wind Energy Foundation, “wind turbines convert the kinetic energy in the wind into mechanical power.”

What wind energy essentially can be used for are “practical purposes,” such as providing electricity, charging batteries and pumping water, to name a few. More specifically, the three main kinds of wind power are broken down by the American Wind Energy Association into the following:

  • utility-scale wind: which are wind turbines bigger than 100 kilowatts that delivers electricity to the power grid and end user by electric utilities or power system operators;
  • distributed wind: this is wind turbines smaller than 100 kilowatts that is used to directly provide power to a home, farm, or small business as its main function;
  • offshore wind: these are wind turbines placed in large entities of water, generally on the continental shelf.

That said, wind energy is also a form of solar energy. According to the Wind Energy Development Programmatic EIS, “winds are caused by the uneven heating of the atmosphere by the sun, the irregularities of the earth’s surface, and rotation of the earth.”

Solar energy–in the most basic terms–is energy that is provided by the sun via solar radiation. Solar electricity is produced from photovoltaic, PV, cells. In other words, when the sun radiates the photovoltaic cells that are inside solar panels, the cells turn the suns radiation into electricity.

In terms of its uses, solar energy’s technologies range from: solar hot water, electricity, providing heat and light, solar process space heating and cooling, and industrial and commercial use of the sun’s heat.

Experts forecast the cleantech market will reach US$350 billion in 2020.

Read your FREE 2020 market report!

What’s the difference between wind energy and solar energy?

Now that we’ve covered the basics on what the two types of alternative energies are, we can now look at the difference between wind energy and solar energy. It’s important to note, however, that the two do bear similarities. Perhaps most importantly is the fact that neither relies on finite resources, such as oil or natural gas.

In terms of the difference between wind energy and solar energy, one of the biggest differences is the way they are extracted.

As noted above, wind generators use wind to generate electricity, while solar energy is energy that is generated by the sun. What’s more, there are also two ways to extract solar power: through solar panels and heat from the sun to generate steam.

Of course, wind energy and solar energy both have their own sets of advantages and disadvantages, as described by online publication Bounce Energy.

The advantages wind energy has includes: being pollution–meaning it doesn’t pollute the air, is cost-effective, and is a national source of energy–meaning it doesn’t come from somewhere else. Solar energy, on the other hand, is silent, has no moving parts, and is easy to create and move around with. Solar panels also have the advantage of working in colder temperatures, while rooftop panels can reduce electricity costs.

In terms of the disadvantages for each, wind energy is relatively expensive to generate, although some suggest they aren’t as expensive as solar power systems. However, the cost of solar panels has drastically been reduced, costing an average of $16,800 in 2017.

That said, one of solar energy’s biggest draw backs is that it only works when there’s sun, which means electricity will have to come from somewhere else when it’s dark or even cloudy outside.

Experts forecast the cleantech market will reach US$350 billion in 2020.

Read your FREE 2020 market report!

Future outlook for wind energy and solar energy

Looking ahead for the wind energy sector, the Global Wind Energy Council reports that wind power penetration levels continue to rise, with Denmark leading the way with 40 percent, followed by Uruguay, Portugal and Ireland with over 20 percent. By 2021, the report suggests there will be over 800 gigawatts of wind power installed–with much of that growth at the hands of Asia–particularly China and India.

In terms of solar energy, the market is in no danger of slowing down–particularly since 2016 was a record year for the solar energy sector. According to data from Statista, the global solar power market will be worth roughly $160 billion by 2023–up from $91.3 billion in 2013.

However, both wind energy and solar energy are projected to supply a third of global power by 2040, with prices for each expected to drop as well. As highlighted by the Financial Times, onshore wind is expected to decrease by 47 percent, while photovoltaic solar power is projected to drop by 66 percent by 2040.

Ways to invest

Last but certainly not least there are–of course–investment opportunities when it comes to wind energy and solar energy.

Investors interested in wind energy might want to first consider the First Trust ISE Global Wind Energy Index Fund (NYSEARCA:FAN), incepted on June 16, 2008 and tracks 41 holdings, including wind energy giants Vestas Wind Systems (OTCMKTS:VWDRY), Boralex (TSX:BLX) and Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy SA (OTCMKTS:GCTAF), to name a few. Our list of renewable energy stocks on the TSX may also be worth considering.

Meanwhile, solar energy investors might be interested in 10 microcap solar energy stocks–a list which can be found here.

Don’t forget to follow us @INN_Technology for real-time news updates!

This is an update to an article originally published in 2018.

Securities Disclosure: I, Jocelyn Aspa, hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article. 

Experts forecast the cleantech market will reach US$350 billion in 2020.

Read your FREE 2020 market report!

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