Battle of the Alternatives: Wind vs. Solar vs. Hydro

Posted on Sunday, January 4th, 2009 at 5:46 am by admin

Our electricity grid is a dinosaur. Currently it is being asked to move more power than it was ever designed to handle. If the grid is not upgraded or replaced soon, the day is not far off when the old slow-moving dinosaur will collapse leaving us all—especially the Flintstones—without power.

But there’s the bright side! When that day comes (or in preparation for that day), you finally get to wrestle with the exciting question of how to power your home: Solar, wind, or hydro?

Matthew Stein, author of When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance, Sustainability, and Surviving the Long Emergency wrestles with that very question in his book.

Here’s an excerpt:

No single RE source works best all the time in all situations. Hybrid systems often yield the best year-round performance. Wind and micro-hydro usually perform well during stormy periods, while photovoltaics work best in dry summer conditions with long sunny days. Photovoltaics have the benefit of no moving parts, no maintenance, high reliability, and a long life averaging about 25 years or more for solar panels. The current (year 2008) solar panel cost of about $5 per watt (remember that batteries and inverters will add significantly to this cost) has been steadily dropping as sales of solar cells have doubled every few years. The recent invention of solar roofing panels and the introduction of major PV incentives in several countries are expected to continue to boost sales and significantly reduce prices over the next decade.

Worldwide wind-energy sales have increased at a faster rate than any other source of power, and for good reason. If your area is subject to consistently windy conditions, you can generate electricity with much less initial investment than for photovoltaics. At roughly $1.50 per watt, a small wind generator can produce far more power for far less money than the equivalent wattage of solar panels, when you consider that a wind generator operates day and night. The downside to wind generators is their need for maintenance (they do have moving parts), mounting expenses (they are usually mounted on towers to catch the best wind), some give off annoying noise in high winds, and they have little or no output in low winds. Don’t be seduced by a wind turbine’s high wattage rating if you really don’t have enough local wind to make it worthwhile. In general, if your area does not have enough wind to be annoyingly windy fairly often, it is probably not worthwhile to install a wind system for your home. See the “Wind Power” section in When Technology Fails for more details.

Micro-hydropower is the way to go if you have the right conditions for it. Hydropower requires two things: first, you must have a good source of running water, and second, that water should drop from a significant vertical height. Micro-hydro has the advantage of running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, as long as your water supply holds out. Given a water source with adequate flow and head, micro-hydro will generate far more power than a photovoltaic system of equal cost. The downside is regular maintenance to clear debris from intake screens, service for generator brushes and bearings, and the need for a water source with adequate flow and head. See the “Micro-Hydropower” section in When Technology Fails for more details.

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