As the sustainability debate rages on, people are more sensitive to energy usage to reduce their carbon footprints. The debate on solar energy vs. fossil fuels has often elicited different reactions as the world grapples with going green.
Solar energy vs. fossil fuels: what are the differences? Solar energy is among the most abundant, cleanest, and renewable sources of energy that will not get exhausted over time. Whereas fossil fuels, including coal, natural gas, and petroleum, are non-renewable sources of energy, and they generally take millions of years to replenish themselves.
With the rising negative effects of climate change, you have undoubtedly heard the push by various countries and global environmental institutions to move away from fossil fuels. Solar energy is one of the clean energy sources proposed by green energy enthusiasts.
What is the difference between solar energy and fossil fuels? What are the pros and cons of solar energy and fossil fuels? Why is it challenging to shift to solar energy from fossil fuel fully? This article addresses these questions and more.
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What Is Solar Energy?
Solar energy is harnessed from the sun’s radiation. The radiation from the sun produces heat through chemical reactions that can be harnessed to generate electricity.
Solar energy is a very powerful energy source that can heat, cool, and light homes and businesses (Source: The National Renewable Energy Laboratory). Did you know that one and half hours of solar radiation hitting the earth is enough to satisfy the world’s energy needs for a whole year?
Solar energy is becoming an attractive renewable energy source, with scientists relishing its non-polluting characteristics and inexhaustible supply different from finite fossil fuels.
But, how do you harness solar energy? Engineers have built solar technologies capable of converting sunlight into electricity. These technologies use mirrors (concentrating solar-thermal power-CSP) to concentrate radiation or photovoltaic (PV) solar panels. The resulting energy can supply electricity or be stored in thermal storage or batteries.
Watch the video below to find out about the basics of solar energy.
The Basics Of Photovoltaics
Photovoltaics are best known for generating electric power by using solar cells to transform energy from the sun into a flow of electrons through the photovoltaic effect.
You have likely heard about PV used in solar panels. The sun’s rays hit the solar panels, and the PV cells absorb the sunlight energy. This energy generates electrical charges that respond to an internal electrical field, thus resulting in the flow of electricity.
Basics of CSP
Concentrating Solar-thermal Power (CSP) systems employ the use of mirrors to concentrate sunlight on the receivers. The receivers then generate heat by converting the collect solar energy. And the heat can be stored for future use or used to produce electricity in large power plants.
However, solar technology goes beyond electricity generation from CSP and PV systems. The solar energy systems should be integrated with existing electrical grids before distribution to businesses and homes.
The video below shows how Concentrating Solar-thermal Power (CSP) works.
Pros of Solar Energy
Solar energy has several advantages, but this article has narrowed it down to the most important ones.
1- Solar Energy Lowers Electricity Bills
As electricity bills continue to rise, most households are interested in keeping these bills down. One way to reduce your monthly electricity bills is by generating your energy from the sun.
Adopting solar energy can also make you a candidate for government incentives, federal tax credits, and rebates because you have a safer and greener option.
However, before you qualify for consideration, your solar energy system should be endorsed by the state or recognized by Solar Rating and Certification Corporation (SRCC).
2- Solar Energy Is Environmentally Friendly
Unlike fossil fuel sources, solar energy emits less carbon into the air. Solar energy generates insignificant greenhouse gas emissions since it has no fuel combustion.
Solar energy technologies and energy plants generally do not create air pollution or greenhouse gases. More importantly, adopting solar energy can positively and indirectly affect the environment (Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration)
If more people turn to solar, the air will be cleaner.
3- Energy Independence
Fossil fuels are finite and can one day deplete with no hope of replacement. However, the sun has always been here and will continue to shine for as long as the earth exists.
Relying on the solar system will move the planet toward infinite renewable energy sources. Having a solar battery and solar panel system is an excellent way to become energy efficient and independent.
4- Solar Energy Is Sustainable
Solar energy has abundant energy, with over 173,000 terawatts striking the earth continuously.
If harnessed, this huge amount of energy can ensure the earth’s energy is met without destroying the environment (Source: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT))
5- Low Maintenance
Maintaining solar energy systems is easy since they come with long warranties.
Some would require an annual cleaning, but the solar thermal parts and PV require replacement after 10 years.
Cons Of Solar Energy
Although people are pushing for a switch to eco-friendly and renewable energy, solar energy has no shortage of drawbacks.
6- High Initial Investment
The upfront cost for installing solar power systems can be substantially high.
Costs will vary depending on the solar panels brand, installation requirement, number of solar panels used, and labor fees. These costs can be high for some households to afford.
7- Solar Energy Does Not Work at Night
Solar panels require sunlight to draw power since there is no sun at night; solar panels do not generate energy at night.
Since solar energy is from the sun, you may be forced to rely on the grid to generate power when the sun is out at night.
8- Solar Energy Might Be Expensive To Store
Solar energy can be stored in batteries, which are space-consuming and costly. Solar energy systems combined with battery storage ( also called solar-plus-storage systems) provide power regardless of the weather or the time of day without relying on backup power from the grid.
However, a solar energy storage system costs about $25,000 to $35,000, depending on the size of the battery and several other factors (Source: U.S Office of Energy Efficiency And Renewable Energy)
9- Space Constraints
If you need more electricity, you will need more solar panels and space to install them. Not all roofs can accommodate the number of solar panels required by customers.
Generally, every square foot of roof space can potentially generate about 15 watts of solar energy. And installing a solar panel on a small home requires around 200 square feet of roof space.
10- Solar Energy Is Dependent On The Location And Weather Conditions
The sun’s availability and intensity significantly vary across the globe.
The weather conditions in one area could be cloudier or rainier, while some parts may not see the sun for days. This could affect the efficiency of the solar system in providing electricity.
What Are Fossil Fuels?
Fossil fuels are compound mixtures developed naturally in the earth’s crust from the remains of fossilized plants and animals (Source: Smithsonian Ocean). In addition, fossil fuels typically include coal, oil, and natural gas and are drilled or mined before being refined for use as fuel or burned to produce electricity.
Despite a relentless campaign to advocate green sustainable energy, the world still relies heavily on fossil fuels. Fossil fuels come from decomposing animals and plants found in the earth’s crust.
Fossil fuels contain hydrogen and carbon, which can be turned into energy by burning. Examples of fossil fuels include petroleum, coal, natural gas, bitumens, heavy oils, and oil shales.
Coal is found in rock deposits where dead plants and animals are piled. Oil is also found in solid materials like shale between rocks. These materials are then heated up and refined to produce gasoline.
Crude oil extracted from the earth comprises different compounds with carbon and hydrogen. The crude oils’ chemical composition has different viscosity levels, from thick to light.
Different forms of fossil fuels are used to lubricate machine parts, fuel for running factory engines, and transportation. Fossil fuel can also be used in electric power plants.
Pros and Cons of Fossil Fuel
Although fossil fuels have been vilified for their adverse effects on the environment and health, they are still beneficial. No wonder they dominate the energy generation industry.
1- Fossil Fuel Is Easier Storage And Transport
Fossil fuels have become a predominant energy source because they contain a lot of transportable energy in a small package. Fossil fuels are easily transported by train, tanker, or pipeline (Source: Lehigh University)
Petroleum (crude oil) is reasonably easy to transport; however, it can cause catastrophic damage if spilled. The cheapest and safest way to transport considerable amounts of petroleum (crude oil) over land is through pipelines.
You can easily transport crude oil through barrels and natural gas through international gas pipelines. Unlike renewable energy, you can store fossil fuels indefinitely, allowing you to prepare for times of need.
2- Fossil Fuel Is Cheaper
Since fossil fuels are the main source of the world’s energy, there are well-developed systems and infrastructure for them. The availability of fossil fuels makes them relatively cheaper.
Fossil fuels are generally cheaper because most governments heavily subsidize them as a reliable energy source.
Generally, solar energy costs around $0.04 per kilowatt-hour (kWh), while fossil fuels cost about $0.18 per kWh (Source: arcadia.com)
And with good weather, you can always store the surplus to keep the prices relatively lower.
3- Fossil Fuels Are More Reliable Than Renewable Energy
Renewable energy is disadvantaged because it is affected by changes in the environment. For instance, wind turbines and solar panels operate optimally when the wind blows and the sun shines.
But if weather conditions are not ideal, they do not perform optimally. Fossil fuels do not depend on weather changes; hence they are reliable.
Fossil fuels generate a huge amount of electricity in one location- You can extract thousands of liters of crude oil in one location. On the other hand, renewable energy relies on weather elements from various locations.
Cons Of Fossil Fuel
4- Fossil Fuels Are Non-Renewable Energy Sources
If the world does not restrict the consumption of fossil fuels, they will be depleted quickly.
The worldometers predict that in 47 years, the world may run out of oil, coal in 133 years, and natural gas in 52 years.
5- Environmental Pollution
Fossil fuels are the leading contributors to greenhouse gases. Coal is the worst since it contains more harmful products than other fossil fuels.
Natural gas is more environmentally friendly because it does not emit too many dangerous compounds to the environment.
Generally, fossil fuels contribute immensely to global warming and climate change. And we know that climate change threatens humanity.
6- Fossil Fuels Are Dangerous If Handled Irresponsibly
Most fossil fuels are highly flammable; if they are wrongly handled, they could result in accidents. For instance, natural gas used as a primary energy source in most parts of the world can easily explode, resulting in serious injuries.
Oil also causes damage to marine life, especially when it spills during transportation.
Is Solar Energy Better Than Fossil Fuels?
Solar energy is better than fossil fuel if you consider the environment’s harmful effects and unlimited supply. With solar energy, factories and households will not emit greenhouse gases and oil spills into the oceans, affecting marine and human lives.
We are also confident the sun is not going anywhere anytime soon, which means solar energy will always be there. The same thing cannot be said about fossil fuels that can be depleted.
The world has every reason to propagate solar energy because it is clean and futuristic. The only challenge is how to harness it cost-effectively.
Can Solar Energy Replace Fossil Fuels?
Solar and wind energy can potentially help meet global electricity demand more than 100 times. By 2050, Solar and wind energy could replace fossil fuels entirely (Source: Forbes). In the U.S, when electricity delivered by wind or solar energy is available, it replaces energy produced by coal-fired generators or natural gas.
For instance, an NREL study discovered that generating 35% of electricity using wind and solar in the western U.S. might reduce CO2 emissions by 25 to 45%.
In 2019, wind and solar energy represented 62% of all new generating capacity, compared to natural gas, while coal-fired power was retired (Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration)
Is Solar Energy Cheaper Than Fossil Fuels?
Onshore wind and solar are currently the cheapest energy sources, costing less than nuclear, gas, geothermal, or coal. Solar, particularly, has cheapened at an impressive pace. Electricity from fossil fuels costs around 5 to 17 cents per kilowatt-hour. In contrast, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), solar energy costs between 3 cents to 6 cents per kilowatt-hour and is trending down.