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Solar Energy vs. Fossil Fuels

Profile picture of Kathryn Parkman
by Kathryn Parkman ConsumerAffairs Research Team
solar panels in city

Consumers burn fossil fuels because it's cost-efficient and convenient — for now. Experts do not consider fossil fuels renewable energy because their global supply is finite. Solar energy, however, is a truly renewable source of natural energy.

The sun won't stop providing sunlight any time soon, and it's available all over the world. However, the amount of sunlight we receive varies depending on location, time of day, season and weather conditions.

As with all power sources, solar energy has its pros and cons. The two main disadvantages of solar energy are its high upfront costs for consumers and lower energy density. But overall, the health, environmental and economic costs of fossil fuels outweigh their value.

 Solar energyFossil fuels
Efficiency rate15% - 22%20% - 40%
CO2 emissions
Long-term availability

Solar energy cost vs. fossil fuels

Going solar is a money-saver in the long term, even though startup costs are higher for the consumer. Electricity from fossil fuels costs between 5 cents and 17 cents per kilowatt-hour. Solar energy costs average between 3 cents and 6 cents per kilowatt-hour and are trending down, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

In 2020, the initial installation and setup of a solar energy system in the U.S. costs an average of about $15,000 after state incentives. Luckily, the cost for solar panels has decreased more than 20% in the last five years and is expected to continue declining, according to EnergySage.

Once installed, a solar energy system is low-maintenance and low-cost. Homeowners might even be able to make money by selling excess energy produced by their solar panels back to their local grid. Full solar panel systems can require a substantial upfront investment. Some homeowners mitigate the initial expense with the money saved on their utility bills, but not everyone is in the financial position to absorb the cost until it balances out. To help offset the initial cost of installing solar panels, many solar energy companies have leasing and solar financing options available.

How is solar energy harnessed?

The earth absorbs enough energy from the sun in about an hour to power the world for a year. If you’ve ever had the sun come through your windows and heat your home, you’ve experienced passive solar heating. To use solar energy for your home, however, you must convert the power into a usable form with solar panels.

Solar panels are made of photovoltaic (PV) cells that convert solar energy into electricity. In a solar panel system, energy from the sun is harnessed and can be stored in solar batteries. Batteries are used with a solar generator to output electricity to provide power after sunset or offset electricity usage.

There are still some disadvantages of solar energy for the environment because of pollution associated with solar energy production. Transporting solar panel systems also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. Still, the environmental problems with solar energy production have significantly less impact than those caused by fossil fuels.

Where do fossil fuels come from?

The three main types of fossil fuels are petroleum (also known as crude oil), coal and natural gas. The formation of these fuels is a natural process, but one that takes time. Despite their name, fossil fuels don't come from fossils. Energy absorbed millions of years ago remained stored in organisms as they were slowly covered by earth. It takes hundreds of millions of years for buried organisms to decompose anaerobically. These organisms eventually convert into what we know as fossil fuels.

These fossil fuels are found underground and accessed by mining or drilling, which have high operational costs. Burning fossil fuels break down the atom bonds that store energy. This releases the energy for use.

Fossil fuels advantages and disadvantages

The most significant advantage of fossil fuels is that our technology for turning them into energy is well developed. Historically, nonrenewable fossil fuel energy has been easy to find and reliably used across the globe. We've had centuries to perfect how we use it.

Though there are innumerable uses for fossil fuels in everyday life, you cannot ignore the disadvantages of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are a top contributor to global warming because of their high carbon output when burned. There's also the potential for dangerous accidents during the production and transportation of fossil fuels.

Given the consumption rate of fossil fuels, the world is reaching a point where there will be little choice in the matter. Nonrenewable fossil fuels are extracted at a much faster rate than they're being replenished. Because of this, some fossil fuels, like coal, are on track to be more expensive than solar within the next decade.

Fossil fuel pros

  • Cheap
  • Reliable
  • Well-developed technology

Fossil fuel cons

  • Less energy independence
  • Production hazards
  • Nonrenewable and unsustainable
  • Contributes to global warming

Solar energy vs. fossil fuels FAQ

How efficient is solar energy compared to fossil fuels?
Solar energy is most efficient in terms of environmental impact, whereas coal and natural gas are more efficient by reliable applications. Solar panels typically have an efficiency between 15% and 20%, coal has an efficiency of up to 40% and natural gas efficiency levels reach up to 60%. However, solar power technology is continually improving, so it's likely to become an even more efficient resource as manufacturers make new advances.

Optimize your solar panel efficiency by installing a solar concentrator or backup batteries and not running too many devices at once. Solar energy requires a hefty upfront payment, but it's more efficient in the long run. You also offset electricity costs for the life span of the panels, which can be as long as 35 years.

Why do we use fossil fuels instead of renewable energy?
We still use fossil fuels instead of renewable energy for several reasons. Our technology and infrastructure for fossil fuels are highly efficient, so phasing them out requires solar infrastructure to be accessible and convenient. The United States also grants subsidies to the fossil fuel industry to keep production costs low and incentivize domestic energy sources. Renewable energy sources also produce inconsistent amounts of power that vary by the season and weather, which makes it more difficult to implement at the scale needed by utility companies and requires additional energy sources to guarantee enough power is produced at any time.
Can renewable energy replace fossil fuels?
Renewable energy can replace fossil fuels, though transitions of such magnitude require time and financial support to implement correctly. More than likely, we will see more mixed-energy usage — some traditional utilities are already becoming renewable. As technology advances, the transition will be a less daunting prospect.
Why is solar energy good?
Solar energy is more environmentally friendly than fossil fuels. It offsets electricity costs and protects against rising electricity prices. Best of all, it is infinitely renewable. Some more of solar energy's benefits include:
  • Lower electricity bills
  • Environmentally friendly
  • Low-maintenance
  • Energy independence
  • Diverse applications
  • Renewable energy source
  • Guaranteed performance
  • Increased home value
  • Tax incentives in some states
Why are fossil fuels bad?
Fossil fuels — oil, coal and natural gas or methane — are a leading cause of pollution and cause nearly irreversible damage to the earth. They also do direct damage to land and water where they’re extracted. Fossil fuels are not renewable, and we are likely to see them run out in our lifetime.
  • Nonrenewable
  • Unsustainable
  • Pollution
  • Production hazards
  • Contributes to global warming
  • Less energy independence

Bottom line: Why is solar energy better than fossil fuels?

When considering the environmental impact of solar power versus fossil fuels, solar power is clearly the more environmentally friendly option. Many consumers prefer fossil fuels for perceived reliability. Oil, coal and natural gas have a higher energy density than solar. (Energy density refers to the amount of stored energy per unit volume.) However, investing in a battery for solar storage lets you tap into energy even if the sun isn't out and helps provide predictability.

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    Profile picture of Kathryn Parkman
    by Kathryn Parkman ConsumerAffairs Research Team

    As a member of the ConsumerAffairs Research Team, Kathryn Parkman believes everyone deserves easy access to accurate and comprehensive information on products and businesses before they make a purchase, which is why she spends hours researching companies and industries for ConsumerAffairs. She believes conscious consumption is everyone's responsibility and that all content deserves integrity.