Solar Energy vs. Fossil Fuels: An Unbiased Comparison

commercial solar panel array with skyscrapers in the background

Modern technology is constantly evolving. Many of the machines and tools we used only just 10 years ago have been replaced by unrecognizable modern adaptations or even completely replaced by new products. So why are we still burning fossil fuels?

The answer is complicated, and based on environmental, practical, and even political factors. In this article, we’ll give you an unbiased comparison of fossil fuels and solar energy to help educate you for future purchase decisions. First, we’ll explain each process, then we’ll look at their advantages and disadvantages so you can choose who really wins in solar energy vs. fossil fuels.

What are Fossil Fuels?

smoke stacks putting out high levels of pollution

Fossil fuels are energy sources that utilize the remains of ancient, decomposed organisms. Most of these organisms were either aquatic phytoplankton, zooplankton, or terrestrial pants.

Phytoplankton and zooplankton are microscopic organisms that live in oceans, lakes, and rivers. When these creatures died, their bodies settled on the ground at the bottom of the water. As the decaying bodies of the planktons mixed with mud and other sediment, large layers off organic material formed.

This layer of organic mush continued to layer, causing enormous amounts of heat and pressure to be exerted at the bottom. The heat and pressure caused the organic mush to undergo a chemical change known as catagenesis, which first transformed it into kerogen, then into liquid and gaseous hydrocarbons like petroleum.

Terrestrial plant based fossil fuels are formed by a similar process, but instead resulted in coal, methane, natural gas.

What do we do with Fossil Fuels?

So that now that you know what fossil fuels are and how they’re formed, what do we do with them?

Fossil Fuels are burned and the energy the organism previously stored in carbon bonds is released in the form of high amounts of heat and light. This heat was used in early history when coal was burned to melt metal ore in furnaces. Around the 19th century, petroleum began to be used in oil lamps as a source of light.

But the most relevant use of fossil fuels in the modern day is to create energy. Around the 18th century, the burning of fossil fuels replaced windmills and watermills as ways to power industrial tools as well as a way to warm the interior of buildings.

Today, fossil fuels are transformed into energy by engines to power cars, boats, trains, planes, and small machines. The energy is also harnessed to create electricity that powers homes, factories, and businesses.

What is Solar Energy?

sunpower solar panels on roof

Solar energy refers to harnessing the light and heat emitted by the sun and transferring it to forms of energy that can be utilized for specific purposes, similar to how plants use photosynthesis to store energy from the sun.

The energy from the sun is captured via numerous technologies, and new technologies are continuously being developed.

Some of the most notable are:

  • Solar thermal energy

  • Solar heating

  • Photovoltaics

  • Artificial photosynthesis

All of these processes aim towards accomplishing the same goal, but their processes of doing so are different.

Usually, solar energy is simply used to create electricity. This electricity is then used to power various technologies and machines. But some solar energy is harvested and converted into other forms of energy, such as heat, which can be used to warm your home.

The electricity is created by two different methods. Photovoltaic systems use solar panels containing solar cells that, when exposed to sunlight, convert sunlight directly into electricity.

Concentrated solar power introduces an extra step. Power plants that utilize this technology use solar thermal energy to heat water, creating steam. That steam is then used to power a turbine which then creates electricity.

What do we do with solar energy?

solar energy sign with sunflower

So, now that we have a basic understanding of what solar energy is and how technology is used to harvest it, the next logical question is what do we do with solar energy.

Theoretically, solar energy can be used to power all of the same processes that fossil fuels are currently being used for. However, as we will examine later on, there are technological hurdles preventing the realization of some of these uses. So right now, we will look at where solar energy is currently being used.

Solar energy is mostly being utilized for the creation of electricity used to power residential, commercial, and industrial buildings. Panels on the roofs of houses and stores can supply this energy directly, or solar power plants can produce the electricity and then be transmitted to buildings by power line. Some factories and other industrial buildings also have solar panels that produce electricity, which is then used for their various needs.

Solar powered vehicles have been produced, but due to various technological restrictions, their use is not yet widespread.

All right, now that you have an understanding of both fossil fuels and solar energy, let’s compare the two. This is no simple task, though, as there are significant advantages and disadvantages to both.

Fossil Fuel Advantages

Older woman pumping gas

Since they have been in use for so long, we have a strong understanding of how to find, harvest, and use energy from fossil fuels. The research and development costs associated with fossil fuels are therefore relatively low.

Fossil fuels also contain a massive amount of energy, and the process by which we acquire them is relatively easy. This combination creates a source of energy that is fairly efficient.

Fossil Fuel Disadvantages

solar panels vs fossil fuels - smoke stacks

Image Source

One of the most obvious disadvantages of fossil fuels is the fact that it is a non-renewable source of energy; in other words, it’s running out. To what degree, we are uncertain, but we know for sure that one day (and some say soon) we will no longer be able to use fossil fuels as a source of energy.

The fact that fossil fuels are a non-renewable resource creates an increasingly important need to find a new source of energy, but it also has other practical consequences.

One of the biggest drawbacks of fossil fuels is that since they are running out, and since they are only found in specific places, access to these sources of energy is limited to specific geographic areas. These areas, for a large part, tend to be in the world’s oceans, or within Middle Eastern countries.

These factors create an energy source with a large degree of price volatility. This can be most blatantly seen in the ever-fluctuating prices of gasoline.

Another massive drawback to using fossil fuels for energy is due to the nature of the fuels themselves. Since the fuels store energy in carbon bonds, the energy must be released by burning the fuels. The burning of substances is a relatively inefficient process from an energy transfer standpoint, but it also releases carbon into the air.

Carbon being released into the atmosphere is a significant source of pollution, and has been proven to be a causal influence of Global Warming.

Solar Energy Advantages

infographic showing the carbon pollution from producing electricity

As you can see in the image above, solar energy is significantly less harmful than natural gas, oil, and coal.

Solar energy has numerous significant advantages, and most of them relate to the fact that it is a renewable source of energy. This means that not only is the energy from the sun never going to run out, but also that it will be a constant stream. The consistency of solar energy creates a reliable source of energy, with low price volatility.

Also, since solar energy is renewable, any advances in technology used to harvest energy from the sun will be valuable forever. Investments into the development of solar technology will continue to pay off as long as we need them to.

Solar energy is also a “clean process,” meaning the transfer of energy from the sun into power does not directly produce any pollution. There can be pollution caused by accompanying processes, but it is very small.

Because the solar panels are what produce the energy, and because the sun isn’t exactly hard to find, this is also a relatively passive process of producing energy. This means that solar energy requires fewer employees and less effort to acquire energy.

Solar Energy Disadvantages

By its very nature, solar energy has disadvantages to other forms of energy, including fossil fuels. The fact that sunlight is required to create the energy requires that the power either be produced in places that are always sunny, or it must be stored and transported to where it is needed.

This requirement exposes two significant problems: energy is difficult and expensive to store, and it is difficult to transport. However, if the energy is not stored then it cannot be utilized unless the sun is out, and if it cannot be effectively transported then areas without sufficient sunlight cannot utilize the technology.

Because using solar energy is so much less prevalent still today than fossil fuels, there is less research and innovation occurring in the sector than there should be. Therefore, the technology necessary for widespread use of solar energy has been slow to develop. However, it's been increasing lately and especially since California is requiring all new construction to have solar panels by 2020.

So, who wins in the battle of solar energy vs. fossil fuels?

As you now can understand, this is a complicated question. Solar energy and fossil fuels are both efficient methods of producing usable energy, but they also each have their significant disadvantages.

Over all, I think this is safe to say; solar energy is a promising alternative to fossil fuels for many practical uses. As we continue to see the negative effects of the widespread burning of fossil fuels, we must pursue these alternative forms of energy.

And as fossil fuels continue to run out, solar energy will become an increasingly attractive alternative.