Solar Energy Vs. Fossil Fuels: A complete comparison
Fossil fuels are the most popular source of energy around the world. But they aren’t renewable kind of source and are limited also.
So in search of renewable energy sources that can fulfill the increasing demand for energy worldwide, what comes to our mind at the very first is solar energy. But there are merits and demerits of both sources of energy. We’re going to discuss them here.
As I just said, fossil fuels aren’t unlimited. They are accumulated underground for years. We are just collecting them and burning them to get energy. So it is clear that there is no way to reuse them.
Suppose we continue relying on fossil fuels entirely for the worldwide demand. In that case, we have hardly 2900 years in the case of coal, 230 years for natural gas, and 190 years for petroleum. So only a few generations can sustain.
But solar energy is unlimited. Sunlight touches the solar panels and gets converted to electrical power. We can store them in solar panels and use them as batteries and also can use them directly.
As we know, we’ll never run out of solar energy till the sun brightens the earth up. And honestly, the sun isn’t going to extinguish soon; we can rely on that fact. So, when it comes to renewability, solar energy just knocks out fossil fuels.
Electricity generated from fossil fuels needs to be transferred from long distances. This takes a high cost. Besides that, the fuels themselves demand a continuous expenditure (mining of the fuel, refining, carrying from mine to power station). The cost range for fossil fuel-generated power is 0.055-0.148 U.S. dollars per kilowatt-hour (based on the 2020 report).
Solar panels can be installed wherever they are needed to be. However much the installation cost may be, it is a one-time investment.
In 2020, the average installation cost worldwide was 883 U.S. dollars per kilowatt. The maintenance expenditure is minimal. Luckily the installation cost has decreased at least 20% in the last five years. It will be more economical in the future.
The homeowners can even make money by selling excess energy from their solar panels to their local grids. It requires a substantial upfront investment, but ultimately it lowers the overall expenditure for electricity.
But still, not every homeowner can afford the initial investment. So, many companies/solar organizations provide leasing and solar financing options like loans, EMIs and power purchasing agreements, etc. These also include a few years (around 25) of warranty on parts, labor, and repairs.
Global warming is a massive challenge to the environment. The burning of fossil fuels is one of the biggest reasons behind global warming.
This is also one reason why civilization wants to shift from fossil fuels to green energy.
Burning coal, petroleum, or LPG releases a vast amount of carbon-di-oxide. On the other hand, solar panels generate around 50g of carbon-di-oxide per kilowatt-hour during the initial years (accounting for the carbon-di-oxide generated during manufacturing). This is somehow 20 times less than the carbon release of coal-powered energy (975g of carbon-di-oxide per kilowatt-hour).
So one can safely conclude that solar energy is 20 times “cleaner” than coal (let’s say fossil fuels). Also burning of fossil fuels itself produces a tremendous amount of heat. It highs the temperature of the earth’s atmosphere and suffocates the world by emitting loads of smoke and carbon.
Weather change is a real problem that demands attention. In 2019, 15 extreme weather events happened worldwide caused by climate change. These caused more than 1 billion U.S. dollars of damage each. The large-scale use of fossil fuels is one of the very top reasons for climate change.
One other thing that needs to be mentioned here is that the burnt oil from the ships and other vehicles released into the oceans is one of the most significant reasons for water pollution.
We just can’t get rid of this unless we can get rid of fossil fuels. This burnt oil pollutes the ocean water and hampers the ecosystem of oceans, which is an unfortunate thing to know.
According to 2021’s report, solar panels are 15-22% efficient on average while producing electricity. Monocrystalline panels can work with 22-27% efficiency, whereas polycrystalline ones show only 15-22% efficiency.
The efficiency depends on weather conditions (the above mentioned are measured in standard conditions). But with the advancement of technology, scientists are hopeful about the growth of this efficiency.
A new kind of solar technology that stacks the technology from six different solar cells can ratchet up that efficiency multiple times.
The record has reached 47% efficiency in the lab and nearly 40% in real-life conditions.
When it comes to fossil fuels, the efficiency is clearly more than solar panels. Gasoline that is used in cars as fuel is somewhat 20% efficient. That means 20% of them convert into mechanical energy of engines, and the rest 80% is wasted as heat energy.
Coal is 33-40% efficient while producing thermal electricity. But the point is they not only provide power to the world but also suffocate the earth. Also, they contribute significantly to global warming.
To produce thermal electricity, we need large complex instruments like turbines, analyzers, boilers, etc.
To install these instruments, we need ample space away from populated areas. So it needs to build up one large power plant. But in the case of solar energy, it’s just the number of solar panels.
Yeah, manufacturing solar panels need 20-25 machines, but they are simple once made.
Whereas thermal energy production it’s a continuous process where we need those large types of equipment. Also, the making of solar panels doesn’t need a large place away from a populated area.
The continuous production process at thermal energy plants needs not only large complex instruments but also needs substantial human resources to operate them.
So we need to employ a considerable number of laborers to the power plants. In the case of solar energy, once it is manufactured and installed, it’s just the sunlight that does the rest of the work.
The maintenance of solar panels isn’t that hectic job. Manufacturing and installation need a workforce, but I repeat, it’s just a one-time job. You don’t have to worry about the monthly production of energy.
Necessity of transmission
Thermal electricity can’t be produced anywhere. It needs large types of equipment and so one powerhouse. So it needs to be transmitted and supplied to the users.
The transmission process is also intricate and costly as it needs to cover large distances. Also, the systems that are required for this transmission process have a high maintenance cost and labor.
In the case of solar energy, users can just install solar panels on the rooftop of their house. That means solar power doesn’t need to be transmitted. It just can be produced with ease wherever there is sunlight. And whenever sunlight brightens the panels up, they start producing electrical energy.
Think of a simple calculator in your hand having solar cells instead of a battery or a digital weighing machine working entirely on solar energy. It does make sense, isn’t it? But we can’t imagine carrying fossil fuels like that.
Yeah, our gadgets can get charged from electricity whenever we are at our house or office or somewhere like that. But that electricity isn’t portable. We need rechargeable batteries to carry, and that too needs to be get recharged.
But for solar energy-dependent gadgets, it is so simple. You just need to allow sunlight to brighten your device up. Also, you don’t have to carry any extra battery or anything like that. Solar cells can be inbuilt. So it is as simple as that.
Not every rooftop is appropriate to install solar panels. For example, roofs made of materials like wood and slates aren’t ideal for installation.
Brittle roofing makes the installation process difficult and therefore expensive. Installation at an asbestos roof is also tricky.
Thatched roofs aren’t suitable at all, as there is no mounting system designed for them and also that there’s a high risk of catching fire.
But Thermal electricity can reach almost everywhere without much difficulty. Some places are challenging to reach than others, even for thermal electricity. However, it’s still easier than installing solar panels on an inappropriate rooftop.
Seasonal effects and effect of climate
Energy generation from fossil fuels clearly doesn’t have any issue with the climate or weather.
One can produce as much energy at poles as in equator or tropical regions from the same amount of resources in hand. Also, the energy generation doesn’t differ in days and nights, cloudy and sunny days, or winter and summer. But, to generate Solar electricity, we need to depend on the climate and time during the day.
One can’t just produce the same amount of solar energy everywhere and in every season. The power generation depends on the amount of incident radiation, and we can’t control that.
We all have seen transformers, high tension wires conducting electricity, at least a bunch of cables hanging roadside, right?
Imagine how they symbolize danger. And those can be really dangerous when they are damaged. You’ll never know which one among them is damaged and also one can’t just avoid meeting them.
But in the case of solar energy, electricity is produced wherever it is needed. So it just doesn’t need any transformer or wires that are hanging roadside. Usually, for solar power, there is no need to transmit it long distances. It is just safer, no way to deny the fact.
Tech Vs. Resources
Energy fired from fossil fuels is resource-dependent. We just collect the resources from the underground and burn them. There’s no way to reuse them. It gets destroyed completely when it generates energy, and the remnant only pollutes the environment and causes harm to the ecosystems.
The civilization isn’t much hopeful about them. But solar energy is a ‘technology’ rather than being ‘fuel.’
The materials we need to make one solar panel don’t get destroyed after generating energy. We can use them for a long time and also recycle and reuse them. As this is not only material-dependent but much dependent on technology, the types of equipment can be improved with time with the advancement of technology.
In the lab, scientists are trying to enhance the efficiency and lower the manufacturing and installation cost of solar panels. Scientists are hopeful about the bright future of solar energy. Technology is improving faster than we can think of.
Why fossil fuels are leading the energy production of the world
We also know that fossil fuels are deadly for the atmosphere and the ecosystem too. But it’s not that easy to shift the whole world’s energy requirement from fossil fuel to any other green energy source like solar panels.
First of all, if one asks why we even go for fossil fuels, then I must say that they are the most energy-dense source of all other available sources.
For example, natural gas provides 53.1MJ/kg, gasoline provides 45.8Mj/kg, and coal provides 30.2 MJ/kg. In contrast, woods provide 19.8 MJ/kg, and lithium-ion batteries provide 0.504MJ/kg.
Nowadays, fossil fuels are the most convenient energy sources and are also widely used. Let’s say the companies that produce energy from them are influential in the United States and worldwide.
But still, this isn’t the key reason. The companies denied the problem for years, and policymakers were also reluctant to enact policies to force any real change. It was easier for everyone to stick with the most convenient thing, even if it was harmful for the civilization.
Why solar energy is one of the most feasible solutions
Fossil fuels are a threat to the atmosphere. On the other hand, the cost of solar energy has fallen dramatically over the past decade.
The new technologies are very much promising. Especially in sunnier regions, the cost has become extremely low. Because of its availability and simplicity, it is also becoming more and more popular worldwide, which will positively impact the issue of climate change.
There are already high-efficiency modules that can produce nearly 1.5 times more energy than the existing ones. There are also other innovations like bifacial modules and other innovations that can reduce the material costs of the panels.
We all want to save our earth and its atmosphere. With the developing technology and understanding of the climate challenge, we are hopeful for a low-carbon future.
Hopefully, with the advancement of technology and spreading awareness, people rely more on green energies like solar energy and shift to that. Then the earth will be more habitable for our future generations.