Wind and Solar Power 101
How They Work and Why They Matter
Every day, the weather helps power communities around the country. When the sun shines or the wind blows, solar panels and wind turbines gather their energy to generate electricity, powering homes and businesses. And these renewable sources of electricity support peoples’ lives without emitting the planet-heating gases that come from burning fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas.
This short guide explains what you need to know about solar and wind power—where they come from, what they do for the economy, and how they protect the environment—giving you the context you need to understand why renewables matter for your community.
NOTHING NEW UNDER THE SUN
Renewables may be in the news now more than ever, but people have been getting electric power from wind turbines and solar panels for decades. In fact, the roots of today’s wind turbines and solar panels reach all the way back to the 19th century, when scientists and engineers first started using generators to convert the wind’s kinetic energy into electricity and discovered the photovoltaic effect, the process by which solar cells turn sunlight into electricity.
Although it took until the 1950s to develop a practical solar cell, by the end of that decade NASA was using solar panels to help power its satellites. Researchers at the University of Delaware built the world’s first solar-powered home in 1973.
Much has changed since the 1970s, but the basic principles of wind and solar photovoltaic power remain the same. When the wind blows, it turns the blades of wind turbines, rotating a drive shaft connected to a generator that produces electricity. When the sun shines onto a photovoltaic solar cell, it produces an unbalanced charge across that cell and causes an electric current to flow. The electricity that results can be sent out to the grid or directly power a home or business.
Where does my community’s renewable electricity come from?
When you think of where renewable electricity is generated, you may imagine a vast field of solar panels or a forest of wind turbines. Big facilities like these are known as utility-scale installations. They generate electricity that travels across the grid, sometimes over vast distances, to where it gets used.
Their counterparts are the kinds of solar setups you may have seen attached to the rooftops of homes in your area. Unlike utility-scale installations, these rooftop solar installations generate electricity that is largely used on-site. (Residential and commercial wind power is less common.) Residents and businesses often send excess electricity back to the grid, earning credits that they can use to offset their electricity costs on cloudy days or at nighttime. This practice is known as net metering, and it can help reduce consumers’ energy costs.
There’s plenty of diversity even within these broad categories of renewables.
Start with solar power. Photovoltaic solar systemsare by far the most common way of turning sunshine into electricity in the United States, accounting for 97 percent of the country’s solar capacity. But the country is also home to a number of utility-scale concentrated solar systems, which use mirrors to focus the sun’s rays, heating up a liquid that is then used to generate electricity, by, for instance, running a steam turbine.
As for wind power installations, they can be found both onshore and offshore. Virtually all of the United States’ wind power capacity is on land; offshore turbines are more common in Europe, though there is increasing progress for offshore wind in the U.S. as well.
All of these types of renewables face a common challenge: the sun doesn’t always shine, and the wind doesn’t always blow. This challenge is commonly known as intermittency or variability. One way to deal with intermittency is to pair renewables with storage systems, such as batteries, which save energy that can be consumed when weather conditions don’t allow for new electricity generation.
ON THE WAY UP
Wind and solar power have made enormous strides since their early days, especially in the last few decades. Thanks in part to advances in technology and supportive government policies, they have gotten far cheaper as well as more efficient—converting more of the energy of the sun and wind into electricity at a much lower cost.
Recent advances in solar technology have been especially impressive. Between 2009 and 2019, the cost of installing new solar capacity plunged by 89% percent. Indeed, in many U.S. states, utility-scale wind and solar power are now cheaper than coal when measured by the levelized cost of energy—a measure that reflects the average cost of building and running a power facility over its expected lifetime, per unit of energy. At a global level, getting electricity from new wind and solar photovoltaic facilities tends to cost less than energy from newly-built coal-fired power stations. The cost of batteries has also plunged by 87% over the decade.
Cost, efficiency, and availability help explain why the wind and the sun are powering more of our society today than ever before. The United States is now home to enough solar capacity to power 18 million homes and enough wind capacity to power another 32 million.
And more renewables are coming. Under today’s policies, the share of America’s electricity generated by all renewables is projected to double over the next three decades, from 19% today to 38% in 2050. (Wind and solar will account for nearly all of that growth; the amount of electricity generated by other renewables, such as hydroelectric and geothermal power, is expected to stay roughly constant.) To have a good shot at avoiding dangerous levels of global warming, however, the world must reach net-zero emissions by midcentury. That, in turn, will require an even faster and deeper transition from fossil fuels and toward renewables like solar and wind.
ON THE SUNNY SIDE
Renewables don’t just help reduce emissions; they also employ tens of thousands of people in the United States. In fact, renewables tend to support more employment per unit of electricity than their fossil-fueled counterparts do. The solar sector supported nearly 190,000 American jobs in June 2020, even after a wave of layoffs caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. The wind power sector, meanwhile, employed roughly 120,000 Americans in 2019, though the pandemic threatened job losses there, too. Over the coming decade, according to projections by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, solar installer and wind turbine technician are set to be two of the three fastest-growing jobs in the country. Overall, putting America on a net-zero pathway would result in a net increase of between 500,000 and one million jobs by 2030, according to research by the Net-Zero America project at Princeton University.
Renewables also avoid the health, social, and environmental dangers of extracting and burning fossil fuels. Those harms range from air and water pollution to climate-warming emissions that contribute to more coastal flooding, more destructive hurricanes, and longer wildfire seasons. Many of these harms disproportionately affect low-income communities.
The electricity sector is responsible for a third of America’s energy-related CO2 emissions, so replacing fossil fuels with renewables is an important avenue for reducing emissions. And as electric vehicles grow more common, running the grid on renewables will help slash emissions from transportation, too.
The weather that meteorologists report on each day shapes their viewers’ lives. When the wind and the sun help energize your community, the weather's power goes deeper still. Check out WeatherPower for an up-to-date analysis of how wind and solar are performing daily in your media market, county, or congressional district.
Climate Central’s WeatherPower tool helps you explain how the wind and sun are fueling your community.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration illustrates how electricity travels from power plants to homes and businesses.
In “Why did renewables become so cheap so fast?,” Our World In Data explains the dramatic price decreases of the past decade.