If you were to compile a ranking of some of the most heated debates of our time, the debate over renewable versus nonrenewable energy sources would almost certainly come out on top. Furthermore, this is true even though almost everyone is aware that renewable energy is the superior alternative.
Solar energy has been at the center of this debate for nearly as long as the technology has existed to harness it. Eco-scientists believe that solar energy is the energy of the future; governments support it (albeit only to a limited extent); and some corporations have begun harnessing solar energy on a large scale. As a result, it has become one of the most rapidly expanding renewable energy sources on the planet.
But how does it stack up against other forms of energy production? A comparison of solar energy to other renewable and nonrenewable sources will be made in this article, including fossil fuels and hydroelectric power as well as wind and geothermal energy as well as nuclear and biofuels.
Table of Contents
- Types of Energy Sources (Power and harnessing)
- Costs of alternative power sources
- Solar Adoption rate
- Solar Efficiency (average capacity factor)
- Usable life
- Impact on the environment
- So, where does solar energy stand?
Types of Energy Sources (Power and harnessing)
Solar energy comes from our nearest star, the sun, which sends us enough energy in an hour to power our entire planet for a year. Solar energy is renewable and environmentally friendly. Humanity uses this energy to heat homes, heat water, cook, and power home appliances, but it must first convert solar energy into a form that can be used by the rest of the world.
This conversion is typically accomplished through the use of a solar panel system. Solar panels are made up of a large number of photovoltaic (PV) cells, which are responsible for converting photons into electricity. It is either consumed by appliances immediately or stored in batteries for use at a future date.
Carbon-based fuels were formed as a result of a natural process that took hundreds of millions of years. Throughout the eons, small plants and animals living on the earth’s surface died, and as time progressed, their remains were gradually covered by ever-thicker layers of earth. The high temperatures and immense pressure that resulted from this decomposition process transformed their decomposing remains into what we now know as fossil fuels, which include coal, oil and petroleum, and natural gas.
Because fossil fuels are typically buried deep underground, we must drill miles underground to reach them. Once they have been obtained, burning them releases the energy stored in the atom bonds, allowing it to be used.
See our related article where we break down 11 Alternative Energy Sources to Fossil Fuels.
Wind power is an additional source of renewable energy that is readily available A wind turbine’s blades are turned by the kinetic energy of the wind, which then turns an electric generator through a drive shaft, resulting in the generation of electricity. When it comes to utilizing wind power, windmills are among the most ancient of all.
See our related article showing the Pros & Cons of Wind Power.
Hydropower is a renewable energy source that is the most widely used today It is produced when rapidly flowing water turns turbines, resulting in the generation of electrical energy. This typically occurs in a hydroelectric facility, which is comprised of a massive dam that converts the potential energy of water in a reservoir to the kinetic energy required to turn a turbine, as shown in the diagram below.
Nuclear energy isAn atom’s nucleus or core contains all of its information. This energy is released from the atom during the nuclear fusion process, in which the atoms are split in order to release the energy required to generate electricity. This process takes place in nuclear reactors or power plants, where the atoms of uranium are split apart and used to generate electricity. Nuclear energy, on the other hand, is not exactly renewable due to the fact that the earth’s supply of uranium is limited. As a result, it is frequently included in the category of alternative energy.
See our related article showing the Pros and Cons of Nuclear Energy
Biomass or biofuels Organic waste, such as human and animal waste, food scraps, wood and crop residue can be used to generate energy. If they are burned in their physical form (such as wood), they release energy. If they are burned after undergoing certain chemical processes that convert them to combustible gas, they release energy.
See our related article on the major Pros & Cons of Biomass Energy.
Costs of alternative power sources
Home and business owners are frequently presented with solar electricity as a long-term cost-saving alternative for their energy needs. In spite of the fact that households can save an average of $78,000 in reduced electricity bills over the course of their panel’s lifespan, the initial costs for the consumer are quite high.
For example, after state incentives, the average cost of initial installation of a solar energy system in the United States is $12,000 to $15,000 per system. The good news is that this cost has been decreasing over the past decade, and it is expected to continue to decline in the coming years.
Except for biomass, there are no startup and installation costs for the consumer with any other energy sources. Due to the fact that energy is harnessed in quantities far greater than the amount of energy that a single person can consume in their lifetime, and because the startup costs are extremely high, running into the hundreds of millions of dollars, this is the case.
We must use smaller units of energy, such as the kilowatt-hour, in order to compare the costs of conventional energy sources to those of solar energy.
In spite of the fact that solar energy is relatively inexpensive (costing between 3-6 cents per kilowatt-hour), it is practically free for those who have a solar energy system installed. Producing a kilowatt-hour of electricity from fossil fuels, on the other hand, can cost anywhere between 5 cents and 17 cents per kWh.
Nuclear energy costs 9 cents per kilowatt-hour, wind energy costs 5-6 cents per kilowatt-hour, and hydroelectric energy is the cheapest, costing around 1 cent per kWh.
Solar Adoption rate
Approximately 16 million households in the United States benefited from over 2 million solar installations in 2019, which provided enough energy to meet the needs of over 2 million households in the country. When compared to the sheer size of the United States, these figures appear insignificant. Although they represent a significant increase in solar adoption, they also demonstrate an encouraging trend that could result in solar energy accounting for half of all renewable energy sources within the next few decades. It is predicted that by 2024, there will be more than 4 million solar power installations across the country, according to current estimates.
Despite this, fossil fuels continue to be the most important source of energy in the country. They are used to power machinery in industries, as well as automobiles, buses, and airplanes, and they account for the majority of the country’s electric power supply. This widespread use is due to the fact that fossil fuels are extremely convenient, and that much of humanity’s technology has evolved and adapted to them over the course of history. Take, for example, the development of automobiles and jet engines, which was primarily motivated by the desire to reduce reliance on fossil fuels.
In addition, fossil fuels are relatively inexpensive. Although the costs of mining and power generation are high, the industries benefit from government incentives and subsidies, which make it more affordable to use their services.
Hydropower accounts for approximately 6 percent of total electric power consumption in the United States, with nuclear energy accounting for approximately 19.3 percent.
Solar Efficiency (average capacity factor)
In the case of an energy source, the average capacity factor represents the relationship between the actual amount of electricity generated and the maximum amount of electricity that an energy source has the potential to generate.
Solar panels currently convert between 15 and 20 percent of the sunlight that they receive into electricity. Although it is not the most efficient of energy sources, the rate at which it generates power is sufficient to meet the needs of a typical household’s daily electricity consumption. That it converted only 4% of the sunlight into energy is even more impressive when you consider how long the first PV cell had been in existence.
Because of the increasing amount of money being poured into research and development, solar technology is becoming better and better. The average capacity factor of solar PV cells currently stands at 40 percent, which is the highest recorded value. This was accomplished through the use of technology that enables solar cells to capture light at different frequencies across the electromagnetic spectrum.
Unfortunately, these solar cells will not be available to the general public until later this year. This is a new technology that has high production costs because it is still in its early stages. Never fear; over the next decade, production will become sustainable enough to allow such solar panels to be introduced into the marketplace.
It’s important to remember that the efficiency of solar panels decreases over time as well. Although the sun will be as bright and powerful in 25 years as it is today, the efficiency of the PV cells in your solar panel will have declined to approximately 75% of its current efficiency. 90% of the efficiency of their panels is guaranteed after the first ten years, and approximately 80% after the next ten years, according to the majority of manufacturers. As a result, after 25 years, a solar panel is considered to have reached the end of its useful life, and it is usually necessary to replace it.
However, fossil fuels are extremely efficient, averaging 35 percent for coal, 38 percent for petroleum, and 45 percent for natural gas power generation, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). This partially explains why they are so difficult to leave for many people and industries all over the world, including the United States.
Wind turbines today have an average efficiency of 30-35 percent, with peak wind speeds allowing them to achieve up to 50 percent efficiency. This represents a significant improvement over the 25 percent efficiency of wind energy projects that were installed at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Hydroelectric power plants convert approximately 42 percent of the kinetic energy of water into electrical energy.
Wood burning has a capacity factor of 58.4 percent, and other biofuels can achieve rates as high as 64 percent, demonstrating that biomass has a relatively high average capacity factor.
Nuclear power plants are currently the most efficient source of electric energy, with a capacity factor of approximately 93 percent when operating at full capacity.
Solar panels have a useful life of 25-30 years, depending on how well they are maintained. They do not cease to generate electricity automatically after 30 years; rather, their output is so drastically reduced that it is no longer worthwhile to continue. The good news is that you can always purchase a new solar panel because the sun has 5 billion years left before it dies.
The same cannot be said for fossil fuels, which typically last only as long as the flame that ignites the fuel. Because it takes approximately 10 seconds to burn through ten grams of coal, whereas it took millions of years to form the coal. As a result, we will almost certainly run out of fossil fuels sooner rather than later.
The average lifespan of a hydroelectric power plant, on the other hand, is 100 years long. However, we can always construct additional facilities or upgrade existing ones in order to extend their useful life. Hydroelectric power is also renewable, and it will continue to be available for use as long as the rivers continue to flow.
The majority of nuclear power plants have operating life spans of 20 to 40 years before they begin to deteriorate and eventually need to be decommissioned and demolished due to age. If you think 20 years is too short, you’ll be pleased to know that engineers are designing newer plants with an operating life of 40 to 60 years, depending on the technology. Refurbishment of existing nuclear power plants may also be beneficial in extending their useful lives.
It’s also important to remember that we won’t be able to use nuclear energy indefinitely. It is estimated by experts that the world only has enough uranium to last for the next 80 years at the rate at which we are currently consuming the element.
Impact on the environment
Because of the current state of our planet and its atmosphere, nearly all energy discussions end up focusing on the impact of various energy sources on the environment. What are the environmental consequences of the aforementioned energy source? A significant portion of humanity’s desire to switch to solar and other renewable energy sources can be traced back to this question.
See our related article, in which we examine 17 of the most pressing environmental issues. Consider the ways in which they affect us and our future.
Because solar energy has such a small impact on the environment, it does not contribute to greenhouse gas emissions or significant pollution of the environment. Most importantly, the supply of solar energy is virtually limitless. We still have approximately 5 billion years’ worth of it, which shines on us every day on a much larger scale than we will likely ever be able to consume in our lifetime.
There is some damage that occurs during the manufacturing and transportation of solar panels, but it is on a scale that is too small to be a source of serious concern.
However, fossil fuels are largely to blame for the pollution and climate change crises that our planet is currently facing, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere when fossil fuels are burned, something that humans have been doing for several hundreds of years now. As a result, the earth’s delicate ecosystem is being disrupted on a scale that is bringing life on our planet one step closer to extinction. Global warming is the result of this.
Even though hydroelectric power is renewable and emits no greenhouse gases, the effects of dam construction have had disastrous consequences for river ecosystems. Thousands of animal species have been displaced as a result of the flooding of their natural habitats by water from reservoirs, which has disrupted the migration patterns of fish.
The use of nuclear energy is also environmentally friendly (no greenhouse gases are released), but it generates radioactive waste that is extremely harmful to the environment. Accidents have also occurred, contaminating entire towns and resulting in the deaths of dozens of people as well as the evacuation of thousands of people from their homes, among other consequences.
Last but not least, wind energy is a clean and renewable source of energy that is comparable to solar.
So, where does solar energy stand?
I’d say we’re on fairly solid ground. When compared to fossil fuels and other renewable energy sources (with the exception of hydropower), solar energy is better positioned to usher us into an era of clean, renewable energy. This is due to the fact that we have a virtually limitless supply of it. The technology is also improving and becoming more affordable over time, and, perhaps most importantly, it has almost no negative impact on the environment.