Solar Energy vs. Fossil Fuels

Solar Energy vs. Fossil Fuels: Which is the Winner?

Since the very early days of the industrial revolution, fossil fuels have been the world’s standard source of energy. The first oil well was drilled in 1859. However, times are changing rapidly, and now we’re starting to really consider solar energy vs. fossil fuels.

Why? Well, people tend to be hesitant about any sort of major change. Fossil fuels have been in use for over 150 years—roughly two entire human lifetimes. The idea that would begin to shift has led to all sorts of skepticism: Is solar energy really cheaper? Is it really better for the environment? And so on.

These are these sort of questions we will address in this post. By the end, there should be little doubt about which one is the winner.

Cost

Solar energy can be expensive, at least up front. It’s difficult to estimate the exact cost of a rooftop solar panels installation, but the cost is usually in the tens of thousands. Tesla recently increased the cost of a solar roof to $54,966 for a 3,947 square-foot roof.

Although these costs seem high, solar panels can easily be worth it in the long run. Even in the state with the lowest average electricity bill, Utah, it would take about 25 years to break even on a $22,000 solar installation.

Source: Lafayette College

But what about the highest electricity bill? That would be Hawaii, where the break-even point is just 12 years.

Of course, this is a gross simplification, but it’s quite difficult to give numbers that would apply to everyone. In general, though, solar can definitely be cheaper in the long run. Plus, the numbers above assume no incentives. But incentives are significant, too, with a 22% federal tax credit for systems installed in 2021. Each state also has their own tax credits with some offering savings of several thousand dollars.

So, what is the consensus here? Well, solar panels may be more expensive in the long run, but may be cheaper in the long run, depending on where you live. If you take advantage of tax credits and finance them, your monthly cost can easily be lower than it would be through your utility.

Winner: Solar energy

Environmental Impact

There is quite a bit of FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) sown about solar energy and how it is “worse” for the environment than fossil fuels. While there are indeed environmental impacts of solar panel production that should not be ignored, there simply is not evidence for the idea that solar is worse for the environment.

For one thing, it is a complex issue. As the Union of Concerned Scientists points out, impacts can vary greatly depending on the technology. So while we shouldn’t disregard their environmental impacts, it’s not constructive to say they are worse.

In general, solar panels can take up land, water, and use hazardous materials. But once again, as UCS points out, even in the worst-case scenario, life-cycle emissions for solar is one-third of what it is for natural gas and one-seventh of what it is for coal. And, again, these are using the least favorable numbers for solar and the most favorable numbers for the other two.

So while solar can have a more environmentally impactful manufacturing process, it’s must less impactful over its lifetime. Also, those saying the environmental impact of fossil fuels are lower are often only consider burning them, while ignoring the drilling, refining, etc. Some studies have estimated the break-even point for solar’s environmental impact compared to fossil fuels is just a few months.

Winner: Solar energy

Efficiency

The energy efficiency of a typical solar panel is somewhere around 20% today. That number has been creeping upward and many panels do have efficiencies over 20%.

Source: Lafayette College

For fossil fuels, those figures come in at 35% for coal, 38% for oil-fired power generation, and 45% for natural gas.

Solar energy is also not as energy efficient as wind power, which is more in line with fossil fuel efficiency. You can see from the graph above that photovoltaic (PV) system efficiency has increased by 10% over the past 25 years, and that upward trend does not appear to be flattening entirely. Thus, solar energy efficiency may continue to increase.

On the other hand, it’s unlikely efficiency will increase for fossil fuels. Nevertheless, while the picture may change in the future, from a pure efficiency standpoint, fossil fuels do have the edge over solar energy.

Winner: Fossil fuels

Abundance and Availability

This one is relatively simple. As I mentioned in a recent post about whether solar energy is renewable, we only have about 47 years’ worth of crude oil supply left. Yes, 47 years. That’s it. After that, it’ll take millions of years for more of it to form.

Solar energy is very different. As long as you have a way to capture the energy (such as solar panels, of course), you can continue to harness the sun’s power. Plus, many of the materials used to manufacture solar panels are recyclable, further increasing the long-term viability of solar power.

Plus, we need very expensive equipment to extract fossil fuels from the earth. While a solar installation can be expensive relative to the average household budget, it would obviously not be feasible for the average person to drill their own oil. Thus, this is another way in which solar energy increases access and availability.

Winner: Solar energy

The Winner is…Solar Energy

Overall, solar energy is the clear winner here. The environmental impacts of manufacturing can be higher than burning fossil fuels, but this fails to consider drilling for oil, refining, transporting, etc. Plus, solar energy produces on emissions, making its life-cycle emissions much lower than any type of fossil fuel.

The only way in which fossil fuels are the clear winner is energy efficiency. But solar panels continue to increase in efficiency. Plus, other types of renewables, such as wind, are similar in efficiency to fossil fuels.

Overall, solar energy is the clear winner. Indeed, given a choice between solar and fossil fuels, we should choose solar energy every time.

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