Wind turbine vs. solar panel for boats

Is a wind turbine or solar power better to energize your boat? Both produce power, but which is the best option for your boat?

Inside, we explore each of these green energy power sources and apply what we know to boats. We even throw in a few surprises too. 

In this blog, we discuss: 

  • Energy options for boating
  • Why a hybrid energy system may be best for powering boats
  • The pros and cons of wind turbines or solar panels for boats
  • How to get started with an energy audit for your boat
Solar panel on the back of a boat

Wind turbine vs. solar panel for boats

Right off the bat, there is a potential advantage for wind turbines on boats. That advantage is that wind turbines can produce power when the sun is not shining.

That means they can produce power 24-hours per day, whereas solar panels only produce energy while the sun is shining. 

Hold up, though! What happens when there is no wind? No wind or low wind means no power or little power. 

On the other hand, solar power does an excellent job of producing power when the sun is shining. However, during storms and at night, solar panels produce less energy to no energy.

Also, on a sailboat is the potential for the sails to shade the solar panel making it, so the panels produce less energy. 

So, which is better? Much of how we answer this comes down to:

  • How much energy does your boat need?
  • What the average wind speed is where you live or areas where you may boat. 
  • What your expectations are for energy supply vs. demand. 
  • What type of boat you are powering

Here is some more food for thought. 

Can a wind turbine power a boat?

A wind turbine can power a boat, with a big “but wait” moment. It takes quite a bit of wind to produce enough electricity to power a boat. So the keyword here is “Power.” 

For most boats, you need to have an average wind speed that is above 12 mph and this varies depending on specific locations.

What is it you want to power? If you want to add a green energy system that allows you to run your entire boat, you will need more than a wind turbine.

Some boats with high energy demand will couple wind turbines with low friction hulls or hydrofoils. The combination works to produce energy when the boat is moving and when there is available wind. 

Combined Power!

Remember earlier we mentioned that turbines only produce power when there is wind. Therefore, when you combine energy production methods, you have a better chance of actually meeting your energy production needs.

That combo can be air and hydro, air and solar, or solar and hydro. In short, you can combine solar panels and a turbine or a turbine and hydrofoils, or solar and hydrofoils to create an energy situation that helps cover one component when energy production is not ideal. 

Examples of poor energy production can include cloudy days for solar, low wind days for turbines, and anytime the ship is not moving for hydro. 

Is a solar panel better than a wind turbine?

If you wonder if solar panels for your boat are better than power generation by a wind turbine, it isn’t easy to say. Both have some limiting features that can impact their energy production.

In boats that are not wind-driven, i.e., sailboats, you might find that solar is a better option. Sails can create shading that causes the solar panels to produce less energy. 

On sailboats, you can funnel wind from the mainsail into the turbine to produce a more robust wind speed and thus produce more energy. What happens on a sailboat when there is no wind? 

History teaches us about a place called the doldrums. When the only way to travel long distances by boat was on a clipper ship, there were spots when the ships would become stuck because there was no wind for extended periods.

Sailing around the cape was one such place. No wind means the ship cannot move unless it is drifting in a current. 

On the other hand, solar panels take up some room, and they only work when the sun is shining. Is one better than the other?

How you answer that question comes down to what your energy needs are. If you want energy to power a few auxiliary features, like the stereo or air conditioner, then either would be a good option.

If you want serious power production, consider a hybrid system that combines more than one type of energy production. 

How many solar panels does it take to power a boat?

Watts law says that teaches us that Amps X Volts = Watts. How many solar panels does it take to power a boat?

There is not a blanket answer to this question. The answer includes a look at how much power you need. 

Three 300-watt solar panels with five hours of direct sunlight should produce 900 watts of electricity per hour or 4.5kWh of energy over five hours.

Three 100-watt solar panels will produce 300 watts of energy per hour or 1.5kWh of energy over five hours. 

The best place to start when trying to answer this question is to do an energy audit of your boat. Then, add up the energy needs of each appliance.

Most boats have a main battery that recharges from the boats’ engine. So, what we are talking about here is auxiliary power.

Once you have your total energy needs from the energy audit, you can calculate how many solar panels you need and what size they should be. 

Are wind turbines cheaper than solar panels?

If you want to go with the cheapest way to power your boat, you probably want solar panels. They are cheaper in upfront costs, and because most have a 25-year warranty, they are cheaper to maintain.

A wind turbine will require regular maintenance since it is a mechanical tool. Salt air and mechanical devices require ongoing maintenance. 

Sources 

General Solar Panel FAQ

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