Solar Energy Vs Fossil Fuels Efficiency

Tim Hamlin
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Energy Density

The more energy dense a fuel is, the more you get for the volume you put in. You can see this with fossil fuels such as oil, gas, and coal which will have numbers that are higher than ones for solar and wind energy.

However, some energy sources have a much higher energy density than the others, but they are too expensive to be considered mainstream options.

For example, liquid hydrogen has lower density than fossil fuels, but it is also much more expensive, so it is used rarely. On another extreme, nuclear energy is very dense and inexpensive, so it is used frequently.

Along with accounting for the density, it is also important to look at the efficiency of converting energy into another usable form.


Solar Energy is considered the closest renewable resource to non-renewables. Unlike non-renewable resources that are finite, solar energy is limitless. Will it last forever? No, eventually, it’s estimated the sun will die and become a red giant. But that’s many-many billions of years from now. Solar energy is reliable resource that may be a good possibility to generate energy for generations to come. According to statistics, as of 2015, solar power accounted for about 1.4 percent of electric power in the US.

Long-term Availability

This is the main distinguishing feature of fossil fuels that solar energy and wind energy suffer from. The amount of time and effort required to extract and transport fossil fuel creates a direct correlation between the scarcity and cost of a fossil fuel. It takes tremendous amounts of natural resources and human capital to pull fossil fuels out of the ground and to transport them to their intended market.

There are also extreme side effects to using fossil fuels. These side effects create a massive amount of waste that is hard to deal with. Though the world continues to search for ways to make fossil fuel usage cleaner, these effects are a major roadblock in the way of a fossil fuel-less world.

Even if scientists, engineers, and industry leaders of today were to put their minds together for the next 100 years, they still wouldn’t be able to come up with the developments that we have seen in solar energy and wind energy in the last 10 years.

The biggest advantage of solar energy and wind energy over fossil fuels is that they follow the laws of physics and the sun and wind energy are free to use. Unlike fossil fuels that require billions and billions of dollars of capital investment, solar energy and wind energy need no infrastructure in order to harness the sustainable energy that they produce. The energy that the solar panels harness and the turbines produce, when compared to their cost, are virtually a giveaway.


Solar energy is a renewable resource that does not create any emissions or pollutants for the environment. We have the sun. So we will always have solar energy.

Unfortunately, there is some pollution due to the manufacturing of solar panels. But it’s minor and compared to the pollution from fossil fuels, it’s almost nothing.


Although solar energy is more expensive to install, the costs can be recovered in 10 to 20 years. The monthly savings are often greater than the monthly expenses, resulting in positive cash flow and savings in the long term.


Would you believe me if I told you that you could put a giant mirror in space and solve all our energy problems? When I first heard of this idea, I was like "yeah right". It seems like a fantasy. Like something from a Sci-Fi movie, or a comic book.

Giant space mirrors sound crazy, but lasers are a real thing. What if they weren't lasers, what if they were giant mirrors in space? The sun puts out a lot of energy. So if we had giant mirrors or lenses that are able to direct sunlight onto that super efficient solar material that wouldn't burn up, we could theoretically generate massive amounts of energy.

But right now, solar energy is very inefficient. And I don’t mean it's only at 10%. There are a lot of different things that you can do to improve efficiency. And one of the ways to improve efficiency, is to use Fresnel lenses, which concentrate sunlight onto a small area or super-efficient solar paneling.

This could be the key to generating all the energy we need with solar power. But the problem is that right now, solar energy is expensive. And that would put a big dent in the U.S. economy. Which, in turn would put a big dent in the global economy.


If you take a look at the history of solar designs (also called photovoltaic modules) in the last 200 years, you will see that it has changed a lot. The efficiency has gone from less than one percent in the first designs to more than 25% today. They do not produce as much electricity as fossil fuels, but they are clean.

The much higher efficiency of solar panels in these days in comparison with the first designs has radically reduced the costs of production. Because of this, the return time on investment of a solar panel has drastically decreased.

The following table shows the return time on the investment of different technology types in several countries in 2013.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Fossil Fuels Against Solar Power

Fossil fuels are non renewable resources, most of which come from the ground in the form of gas. Oil and gas are easier to obtain and have been used for over 5,000 years in many cases to provide fuel. When burnt fossil fuels quickly produce a lot of energy, which is why they are so popular. In the 21st century, their use is still popular, even though concerns for their environmental impact have grown significantly.

Fossil fuels are considered a non renewable resource because although they can be extracted, the amount left is limited, and renewing them requires a long time. Fossil fuels are not remote from us, due to the simple fact that we live on top of them, and removing them involves disruption of the land and natural landscapes.

These, some would argue, are the main disadvantages of using fossil fuels. However, there are still many people who consider them an important source of energy.

Easy to access and supply fossil fuels are cheap to find. Power stations often have access to transport networks to take their fuel to their destination.

Using fossil fuels, such as coal and gas is still the most efficient heating method for homes. However, the emissions that come out of their stacks are a big part of the impact that fossil fuels have on the environment.

Comparing fuel to technology: why the difference matters

While modern technology is complex and difficult for most people to understand, it is also reliable. And when compared to low-tech, unproven energy sources like wind or solar, this reliability can translate into meaningful savings for homeowners and businesses across the country.

With wind and solar, installation costs, maintenance costs and storage costs can add up quickly, and because wind and solar are intermittent technologies, they put a strain on the rest of the grid to fill in when they are off-line.

This is why the Union of Concerned Scientists, following the recommendation of MIT scientists, estimate that a wind turbine would have to not only generate the electricity needed to power an average American home, but sit idle about 50 to 75 percent of the time, in order to be considered an efficient and cost-effective way to generate electricity.

This is why, when evaluating different kinds of electricity generation technologies, that you look at the overall cost, not just the cost per kilowatt-hour.

With fossil fuels, we have generators that absolutely run 24/7, that are extremely efficient, and that are an inexpensive way to power a home or business.

Even better, the cost of natural gas and petroleum fuels are consistently lower than the cost of wind and solar, and the benefits don’t disappear when the wind is strong or the sun is shining in your area.

Final Thoughts

The biggest factor for the reason a lot of people haven’t jumped to solar energy yet by choice is because they believe it to be expensive. Solar energy is now very competitively priced with both consumer and residential solar energy products being readily available.

Another factor of Solar Energy is the need for daylight. However, just like you cannot turn off right when the sun sets, you can’t use all of the power in daylight either. Even with this limits, solar energy can still produce enough energy to power nearly 1 million homes.

There are still some hotspots that need to be worked out with solar energy and there is still lots of room for improvement in developing solar panels and solar cells.