Is Solar Energy Ready to Take Over?

By: Alex Gaskins
Solar vs. Fossil Fuels image provided by NETR Inc.

The great ball of heat and light in the sky we call the sun or “Sol” is something that we often take for granted, and even today we are not using its entire potential when it comes to harnessing its power. Beyond just energy, the sun impacts nearly everything on the Earth in some way shape or form. Even when it comes to burning fossil fuels, which is seen by many as an enemy to solar energy, the sun is in fact responsible for the production of fossil fuels just as much as it is for the direct production of solar energy. While the process is much longer, the sun powers life on Earth, which eventually leads to the formation of fossil fuels in the process. It also controls wind energy and hydroelectric energy production as a result of the sun’s heat driving both air currents and water currents. Of course these descriptions are tremendously basic compared to how the actual processes work, but they are important nonetheless.

With this, it is often debated as to whether or not solar energy can be as powerful and reliable as energy produced by burning fossil fuels. Through this article I would like to compare the two energy sources and discuss the pros and cons of each in a few different areas of focus.

1. Energy Production

When it comes to production rates, fossil fuels are often immediately put on a pedestal simply because they are still responsible for a majority of energy production in the United States, as well as many other countries. It is important to note that when the term “fossil fuels” is used, it refers to multiple different types of fuel sources, namely crude oil, natural gas and coal. In terms of energy production as a result of burning these different types of fossil fuels, a study conducted by the Pew Research Center found that In 2018 alone fossil fuels supplied roughly 80% of the nation’s energy demand, and in that same year, the total amount of energy used in the U.S. reached a staggering 101.2 quadrillion Btu. This is an immense amount of energy, and likewise, a lot of fossil fuels being burnt. The study also found that the amount of coal being burnt was only responsible for around 16% of all fossil fuel energy, compared to natural gas and coal which dominated production rates. However, in the past 10 years, solar power has experienced the largest percentage growth of any U.S. energy source. Solar generated just over 2 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2008. A decade later, it generated more than 93 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity. With a huge increase as such, it is not expected to slow down anytime soon. With more government regulations favoring renewable energy as time progresses, solar energy may become dominant to fossil fuels in just a couple decades or less.

2. Energy Efficiency

The idea of energy efficiency branches off of the topic of energy production due to how relative the two concepts are to one another. The main concern when it comes to the efficiency of fossil fuels is the fact that it is a nonrenewable resource, which is why more people are favoring the idea of solar energy as the amount of fossil fuels available only continues to deplete as time progresses. However, in spite of the rise in solar energy production, a huge disadvantage that often tramples the idea of switching to solar is the fact that solar energy is heavily dependent on both the weather and the time of day. In this respect, given the current lack of renewable energy production storage systems, fossil fuel energy definitely is better when it comes to reliability — at least for now. With more and more companies invested in long-term energy storage, there is sure to be some revolt from the renewable energy sector in the near future, but until then, it is difficult for renewable energy to compete with fossil fuels.

3. Expenses

Another argument often made about fossil fuels that often puts it on a metaphorical pedestal is how much cheaper it is compared to solar energy. While this was definitely true a couple of decades ago, things have definitely changed since then. This is especially due to the immense growth in research and development in this field. While panel installation costs can be high (prices vary depending on location), the idea of being self-sufficient in terms of energy production is financially appealing for many. For many individuals, solar panels are simply too expensive to install due to the upfront costs, and perhaps the potential repair costs assuming something goes wrong. There is also the fact that they do not last forever, and even though their durability is becoming increasingly better each year, the current average lifespan of solar panels ranges between 25 and 30 years. In the United States, on average the cost of acquiring solar sits somewhere between $2 and $4 per Watt before taxes. Despite this, there are companies, such as Tesla, that are making an effort to make solar panel installations more affordable by making efforts to reduce soft costs and spending on sales by optimizing the ability for users to order solar online. Elon Musk stated that Tesla Solar is 30% cheaper than the U.S. average at approximately $1.49 per Watt after incentives as a result from the company’s endeavors. An article by Forbes estimated that solar is going to keep dropping in cost due to governments favoring renewable energy over fossil fuels, with costs as low as $0.03 per kWh within the next two years. In comparison, fossil fuels have already reach their peak in terms of efficiency and availability, and cost between $0.05 and $0.17 per kWh for production. The solar energy sharing market is also making promising breakthroughs when it comes to increasing access and availability of solar energy, with the expansion of community solar, which offers a cheap and reliable alternative to directly installed solar panels. As this market grows, along with plummeting prices for residential and commercial solar installation, solar energy sharing is on track to become a big part of the shift to renewable energy, by allowing more people to get involved. Assuming costs for solar continue to drop like they have been in recent years, combined with the fact that there is still a lot of room for improvement compared to fossil fuels, it is liable that solar energy could very easily become a cheap alternative to fossil fuel energy in the near future.

4. Environmental Impact

Most people at this point are aware of the fact that fossil fuels are not the most environmentally friendly energy option available. Even with filtration systems installed, fossil fuels have been found to be responsible for detrimental environmental effects involving air and water pollution through various scientific studies. In fact, an analysis made by the United Nations claimed that we need to cut global greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 and entirely by 2040 to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change. This is beginning to become a global trend, as more and more studies are presented of the potentially irreversible effects of climate change due to the continued burning of fossil fuels. In response to this, governments all around the world are leaning more in favor of renewable energy than ever before. A notable example of this is the internationally recognized Paris Climate Agreement which launched the initiative to reduce global temperatures by up to 2 degrees Celsius in the near future through various carbon emission reduction and anti-pollution endeavors backed by globally recognized scientific research. The switch to solar energy is clearly a favorable alternative compared to fossil fuels in this case, which is a big reason why so much research and development has been put into solar energy, being one of the favored forms of renewable energy due to the fact that no matter where in the world you are, the sun will shine there too.

Paris Climate Agreement image from shutterstock.com

References:

[1] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/01/15/renewable-energy-is-growing-fast-in-the-u-s-but-fossil-fuels-still-dominate/

[2] https://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/monthly/index.php

[3] https://news.energysage.com/solar-energy-vs-fossil-fuels/

[4] https://undecidedmf.com/episodes/is-the-new-tesla-solar-panel-price-a-game-changer

[5] https://www.forbes.com/sites/dominicdudley/2018/01/13/renewable-energy-cost-effective-fossil-fuels-2020/?sh=64f783db4ff2

[6] https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp1817067

[7] https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/the-paris-agreement

[8] https://www.ncsl.org/research/energy/tackling-solar-energy-s-soft-costs.aspx#:~:text=Solar%20soft%20costs%20are%20the,solar%20photovoltaic%20(PV)%20system.

[9] https://www.shutterstock.com/image-illustration/paris-climate-agreement-symbol-illustration-1878237607

[10] https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.netrinc.com%2Fblog%2Fsolar-energy-vs-fossil-fuels&psig=AOvVaw25-72WJ_0xBtTmIUaKLzoQ&ust=1618960516553000&source=images&cd=vfe&ved=0CAIQjRxqFwoTCOjZj5O4i_ACFQAAAAAdAAAAABAI

Originally published at https://medium.com on April 19, 2021.