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Solar Energy vs Fossil Fuels – Pros and Cons

Have you installed solar yet? If you’re reading this, I guess you are at least thinking about doing so, and quite right too. These days home solar technology has advanced at such a rate that you can experience some significant savings by installing solar panels.

But before we get carried away, let’s start at the beginning. Just why has solar energy become so popular, and how does it perform against traditional fossil fuels? Let’s ring the bell and start the first round as I take you through the reasoning and arguments behind solar energy vs fossil fuels.

What are fossil fuels?

Fossil fuels are coal, oil, and gas. They are deposits created by the decomposition of ancient plants and animals. In the past, these materials were a readily available resource that we used to fuel the industrial revolution and subsequent human development.

What are fossil fuels

Coal, oil, and gas are materials that give off a lot of energy when we burn them. We still generate most of our electricity using these resources. But the problem is that they are non-renewable resources. When they are gone, they’re gone, and the bad news is they are going fast. It gets worse too, but I’ll get onto that.

What is renewable energy?

Renewable energy is energy that we can use and then replace within a reasonable time so that we can use it again. Examples of renewable energy sources that we are developing include geothermal, hydropower, wind power, tidal power, bioenergy, and, last but not least, solar power.

What is renewable energy

Benefits of using renewable energy

there are lots of positives to using solar and other renewable energy resources, but there are some issues too. Let’s take a look at how solar power fares against fossil fuels.

A constant resource

One of the main benefits of producing energy from renewable resources is that it doesn’t run out. But the problem is that in the past, we have had plentiful access to fossil fuels, and since these were cheap to access and easy to use, most of our energy production is still based on fossil fuels.

Lower or zero CO2 emissions and pollution

I’m sure you’ve heard that the world is heating up, and this is a very bad thing indeed. If we don’t do anything about it, sea levels will rise, and extreme weather will change our way of life. Global warming is no longer a matter of debate; it’s a widely accepted fact across the entirety of the world’s scientific community. Forecasts are grim, and finding ways to deal with the causes of global warming is one of the most significant issues facing humanity today

When we burn fossil fuels, they release carbon dioxide (CO2), which is one of the leading causes of global warming. So changing our primary sources of energy generation away from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources is one of the world’s main priorities.

World energy consumption
Source: wikipedia

But there’s a long way to go, as the diagram above shows. Coal, oil, and natural gas still form the backbone of our energy industry. However, it’s encouraging to note the rapid growth of other renewables, including solar power; in 2019, the annual year-on-year increase in renewable energy consumption was 13.8%.

Rapid progress is being made as the technology driving renewable energy sources proves rapidly, and solar power is at the leading edge of these technological advances.

Hang on, I’ve heard that solar power also involves CO2 emissions?

Critics of renewable resources such as solar power point out that they cause CO2 emissions and use nonrenewable resources. And, guess what, it’s true.

The materials that go into solar installations must be mined, manufactured, and transported, and all of these processes have an environmental impact and release CO2.

But, and this is really important, the working life of a home solar system is around twenty-five years. So the relatively small impact of producing a home solar system has to be compared to the savings of twenty-five years worth of solar energy weighed against burning fossil fuels for all that time.

There’s just no comparison. Despite the expensive publicity efforts of the fossil fuel industry, there’s just no denying that solar power is a far cleaner and environmentally friendly energy source.

Government incentives

As part of international agreements to reduce carbon emissions, many governments, including the US government, offer significant incentives to use solar power and other renewable energies.

What this means to you is that there are a number of excellent incentives on offer that help you to subsidize your home solar installation.

At the moment, the federal government is offering an excellent tax rebate scheme that allows you to claim back a massive 26% of the cost of home solar installation as a tax rebate.

Government incentives

This tax rebate is scheduled to expire in 2022, so this is an excellent reason to go ahead with a solar installation as soon as possible.

There are additional rebates and incentives on offer from many states, districts, and utilities. It’s a great idea to check what’s available in your area.

Given that home solar installations are very frontloaded, with most of the costs related to installing the system and many more running costs for a very long life cycle, government incentives have persuaded millions of US homeowners to go with a home solar system.

Energy costs

one of the traditional arguments against solar power was its inefficiency. Solar panels use photovoltaic technology to convert sunlight into electricity using a chemical process, the photovoltaic effect.

You need some pretty sophisticated technology to get solar cells to work well. And until recently, solar panels were, frankly, pretty bad at their job. But solar technology has lept forward in recent years, and things are very different today. Take a look at the diagram below.

solar vs fossil fuels
image: with the widespread use of renewable energy, costs have declined

You can see that in just ten years, solar panels have gone from being the most expensive of all energy sources to the cheapest. This is an astonishing development and a compelling argument that now is the time to invest in a home solar system.

What does this mean for the costs of home solar versus mains electricity

all this talk of energy costs is interesting, but it doesn’t speak directly to the energy savings you can make as a homeowner, so let’s take a look at that.

At an individual level, we can’t compare solar energy vs. fossil fuels. Instead, we need to look at what you’ll save on your mains electricity costs by installing a home solar system. You work that out by working out the payoff period as follows:

Pay off period = cost of the system – rebates ÷ annual energy savings

solar power vs.fossil fuels

The average payoff period of a home solar installation in the US is eight years.

The average life of a home solar system in the US is twenty-five years.

So the average US home solar system produces free electricity for seventeen years.

I think that’s pretty unequivocal. Home solar systems save you money. They help you, and they help the environment so that you can feel good about yourself and your wallet at the same time.

Solar Energy vs Fossil Fuels

there’s a lot to take in there, so let’s summarise the main points of this discussion in a table and see which energy source comes out on top.

IssueThe main pointsWinner
Renewable resourceSolar power is a constant resource, and the sun will burn for another 5 billion years; it’s not going away. Fossil fuels will be exhausted in decades.Solar energy
Pollution and carbon emissionsBurning fossil fuels is a significant contributor to global warming and has a huge environmental impact. The manufacture of solar systems does create some CO2 emissions and pollution but this is offset by their long pollution-free working lifeSolar energy
Government incentivesFederal and local governments across the USA offer a range of excellent incentives and rebates that significantly reduce the cost of home solar installations.Solar energy
Cheap energy productionOver the past ten years, tremendous advances in photovoltaic solar technology have taken solar power from being the most expensive source of energy production to the cheapestSolar energy
Is solar power cheaper than mains electricityIt takes a US household just eight years on average to pay off their home solar installation costs with energy savings allowing them to enjoy free solar electricity for the remaining seventeen-year life of their solar systemSolar energy

It seems that there is a clear winner in this contest. Solar energy is a young, fit, and strong competitor and one of the leading sources of renewable energy. Even better solar is improving all the time. In comparison, fossil fuels are like an old punchdrunk boxer whose best fights are way in the past.

With excellent incentives to help persuade you to take the plunge, there’s never been a better time to invest in a home solar system than now.

If you have any comments or questions regarding this discussion of solar energy versus fossil fuels, please share them with us.

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