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Home / Technical Articles / Hydro vs. Wind vs. Solar Power?

Water, wind or sun?

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.

In 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.



  • Lowest cost per watt hour
  • Usually a predictable year round power output
  • Often does not require a large battery bank
  • System is quiet and often can be made unobtrusive
  • Typically low maintainance


  • Low cost per watt hour in a good location
  • Smaller systems can be low maintainance
  • Predictable power output in some locations

Solar power:

  • Can be used almost anywhere
  • Extermely low maintainance
  • Very long system lifespans
  • Can be operated unmonitored for extended periods of time
  • Predictable power output in most locations
  • Simple installation
  • Silent , unobtrusive operation



  • Not suitable in many locations due to lack of resource
  • Often requires substantial modification of water resource (except for in-stream type generators)
  • Initial installation cost can be high if damming or dirtwork is required
  • In colder climates, freezing of pipes, etc can be a problem
  • Moving parts will eventually wear out


  • Not suitable in many locations due to lack of resource
  • Towering can be expensive for larger units, and may require heavy equipment to erect.
  • Some people object to the tower aesthetically
  • Birds of prey run into tower and guy wires (similar to but smaller than utility installations in this respect)
  • Power output can be sporadic in some areas, nescesitates the use of a large battery bank and / or altrenate power source
  • Many people report that considerable noise is generated in high winds
  • Even routine, minor maintainance on a windmill can be difficult on the top of a tower. Systems to reduce / eliminate this problem typically add to the cost and complexity of the system.
  • Moving parts will eventually wear out

Solar power:

  • High initial cost for solar panels
  • Power output can be variable in some areas, nescesitates the use of a large battery bank and / or altrenate power source
  • Requires good solar exposure (not practical in shaded areas, etc.)

The major problem with ANY power source is the “Opposition special interest groups”. Lets see now of course we all know about the evils of the nukes, windmills have been know to cut birds in half and the “It destroys my view” people. “Solar panels are ugly” people. Hydro hurts the fish. I suspect that if we all used a generator with a hand crank someone would find a problem with that.

Bottom line is that no matter what we do, there WILL be a side affect somewhere, people need to deal with it!!


Read the rest of discussion

Each system must be optimized to the location and aplication for which it will be used. Installation and maintainance requirements can be a signifigant factor, and should be weighed heavily in the design process.

Hybrid systems using two or more of these power sources, or using a fuel powered generator as a supplement usually provide superior performance over a wide range of conditions.

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Edvard Csanyi

Electrical engineer, programmer and founder of EEP. Highly specialized for design of LV/MV switchgears and LV high power busbar trunking (<6300A) in power substations, commercial buildings and industry facilities. Professional in AutoCAD programming.


  1. Gina
    Apr 30, 2014

    THANK YOU SO MUCH! This article has really helped me for my school project!

  2. Gina
    Apr 30, 2014

    THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR SHARING! You can’t believe how thankful I am! I have searched everywhere for this information. You have saved my life!

  3. Shuja Khan
    Nov 01, 2011

    thanks very much for your research. I’m basically working on PV system, not research selling but as you mentioned already they are very expensive. What about SOLAR THERMAL which you said is the ultimate solution to electricity. how could we get this?

  4. V
    Dec 12, 2010

    Solar Thermal (not PV) with molten salt is the only technology that makes sense from efficiency, reliability, and an environmental impact point of view. Adding a combined-cycle natural gas capability would make it extremely competitive financially as well.

    Hydro/Wind or Wind/Solar hybrids are obviously better performers than equivalents using only one technology but still quite inefficient and expensive as of now.

    • Edvard
      Dec 12, 2010

      Thank you for sharing! Interesting technology of storing energy in hot salt tanks. You’re right, superior performance can be achieved only with combination of two or more of power sources.

      Maybe its technology is expensive now, but it has the future in terms of development and usage. We’ll see…

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