he need for a shift in power generation is evident, yet many homeowners struggle to change their old habits and keep sticking to fossil fuels. Some of them are concerned that renewables will be too costly to deploy, and others are still unaware of the environmental impact fossil fuels have.
Solar power vs fossil fuels: Comparing the pros and cons
Today, we will look at solar power as the most promising clean energy source vs coal as today’s largest source of electricity production. We’ll compare them in terms of ecological impact, accessibility and cost.
Coal production brings a wide set of environmental issues. First of all, it heavily contributes to climate change. When burning, it releases hazardous gaseous byproducts, such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and methane gas, which pose a great danger to the environment.
Coal accounts for over 30% of all global carbon dioxide emissions, emitting more than 2,200 pounds of CO2 per MWh of electricity generated, which is twice as much as natural gas.
Another issue is deforestation and destruction of natural habitats, as vast areas of land need to be cleared for large-scale mining. On top of that, industrial mining is linked to a wide variety of health concerns: toxic emissions can cause respiratory and cardiovascular diseases and even lung cancer.
Solar, on the other hand, is a pollution-free alternative with extremely low carbon emissions, which makes solar power much safer for the environment compared to fossil fuels. A solar installation on average produces the lifetime equivalent of 40 grams of CO2 per kilowatt-hour - 20 times less than the carbon output of coal fired power plants. Thus, solar plays a central role in minimizing greenhouse gas emissions and responding to climate change.
One more advantage in terms of the environment is that solar electricity generation doesn’t deplete water resources, whereas fossil fuel power plants use significant amounts of water. Positive health impact is another strong argument for adopting solar power, as the reduction of nitrous oxides and particulate matter emissions would cut down a wide range of health problems.
Coal is the most abundant nonrenewable fuel source in the world. It is easily obtainable, which is in large part the reason behind its enduring popularity – coal is easy to mine and store, and it can be found on all continents and in more than 80 countries. It has been there for many years, so mining processes are already streamlined and require no sophisticated equipment, in contrast to other fossil fuels like oil or gas. The extracting technology is relatively simple, with only a few steps involved.
Solar is the most abundant source of energy of all. Unlike traditional fuels, solar power is free and never-ending. But the limitations are obvious: it isn’t equally available in different parts of the world and is extremely weather dependent. For example, northern countries in higher latitudes can’t take advantage of solar power, whereas their demand for energy during cold winters is the highest. Besides, even in sun-rich countries, solar energy is not a one-size-fits-all solution, since north-facing roofs or shading obstructions make sunlight much more difficult to harvest.
The cost of coal is the lowest of all fossil fuels. Although its consumption is falling in the developed world, it is still rising sharply in many developing economies. It is hardly surprising though, as this traditional solution offers low cost, reliable and constant power supply that is able to meet high consumption needs.
Solar energy cost compared to fossil fuels turns out to be even lower. According to IEA’s EA released its latest report on the cost of "green" energy, solar PV projects receiving low cost financing and tapping high-quality resources now produce the cheapest electricity in history.
According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), building a solar PV plant is sometimes less costly than operating existing traditional power plants, as 61% of their power capacity in the US costs more to operate than building new renewable energy plants. Replacing these fossil fuel plants with renewables such as solar power would result in $5.6 billion in cost savings.
Solar energy beats fossil fuels with ease
This detailed renewables vs fossil fuels analysis clearly shows that solar wins hands down.
Without fossil fuels, we wouldn't have a modern industrial society. They are cheap and well-utilized, but this comes at cost of immense environmental and health risks. Fossil fuels are key contributors to global warming and climate change, so we should at least pull away from using them as a major energy source.
As concerns over future energy supply rise, increasing solar electricity production is an obvious solution to curb the need for fossil fuels. Solar energy is much safer compared to other options, it emits no CO2 or other pollutants into the atmosphere, and solar panels are becoming more and more economically viable with their progressive cost reduction.
The world is starting to face an ever-increasing reliance on renewables, and solar is taking the lead. While there are still some hiccups in this transition, it is already happening and will continue throughout the 21st century.