Are Solar Panels More Efficient Than Natural Gas?

With rising energy costs and increasing environmental concerns, many homeowners are looking into installing solar panels as an alternative to fossil fuels like natural gas. But how do solar panels really compare to natural gas in terms of efficiency? This article will provide an in-depth analysis comparing solar panel efficiency to natural gas efficiency across different factors.

We’ll start by defining efficiency and looking at the typical efficiencies of both solar panels and natural gas systems. Next, we’ll explore the various factors that can affect solar panel efficiency, followed by a direct comparison of solar vs. natural gas efficiency. Cost efficiency differences will also be analyzed before examining the environmental impacts of each energy source. We’ll conclude with a look at the future outlook and which energy source is likely to become more prevalent over time.

By the end of this comprehensive comparison, readers will have the knowledge needed to determine if solar panels or natural gas are the more efficient option for their energy needs.

Definition of Efficiency

Efficiency in this context refers to the percentage of an energy source that is converted to useful energy or work. For example, when evaluating the efficiency of solar panels versus natural gas, we are looking at how much of the original energy input from sunlight or natural gas is converted into usable electrical energy to power homes and businesses. As the U.S. Department of Energy explains, “Energy efficiency is the use of less energy to perform the same task or produce the same result” ( The more efficiently an energy source converts its input energy to work, the higher its efficiency rating.

Solar Panel Efficiency

Solar panels convert sunlight into electricity through the photovoltaic effect. The efficiency of a solar panel refers to the percentage of sunlight that gets converted to usable electricity. According to Calculating Solar Panel Output – a Complete Guide, the typical efficiency rate for residential solar panels falls between 15-22%. Current commercially available solar panels can reach efficiency rates of up to 22%, while lab prototypes have exceeded 44% efficiency.

Higher efficiency solar panels will produce more electricity from the same amount of sunlight compared to lower efficiency panels. So panel efficiency is an important factor in determining energy output. Other factors that affect solar panel efficiency include temperature and intensity of sunlight. Solar panel efficiency tends to decrease as temperature increases. Locations with more consistent sun exposure and cooler temperatures will enable panels to operate at peak efficiency levels.

In summary, today’s commercial solar panels convert 15-22% of sunlight into usable electricity through the photovoltaic effect. Efficiency rates continue to improve through advances in solar cell technology and materials.

Factors Affecting Solar Efficiency

There are several factors that can affect the efficiency of solar panels. According to, some key factors include:

The type of solar panel – Monocrystalline silicon panels tend to be the most efficient, with average efficiencies around 15-20%. Polycrystalline panels are slightly less efficient at 13-16%, while thin-film panels are the least efficient at 7-13%.

Orientation and tilt – Solar panels produce the most energy when pointed directly at the sun. Optimal orientation and tilt depends on location, but facing south and tilting panels at an angle equal to your latitude is a good starting point. Fixed mounts lose efficiency as the sun’s position changes.

Shading – Even small amounts of shade can greatly reduce solar panel output. Trees, buildings, and dirt can all contribute to shading. Careful site planning is needed, along with regular panel cleaning.

shading can greatly reduce solar panel efficiency

Ambient temperature – Solar cells become less efficient as temperatures rise. Cooler climates enable higher efficiencies, as do technologies like passive cooling systems.

Natural Gas Efficiency

The efficiency of natural gas power plants refers to how much useful energy, like electricity, can be produced from burning natural gas as a fuel source. According to, natural gas power plants utilize a combustion turbine to burn natural gas, producing high temperature and pressure gas that then spins a turbine to generate electricity. This process can achieve high efficiencies up to 60% for the latest generation of combined cycle natural gas power plants.

Specifically, a simple cycle natural gas power plant has an efficiency rate ranging from 33% to 43%, while a more advanced combined cycle plant can achieve 60% efficiency or higher, according to PCI Energy Solutions Combined cycle plants reuse waste heat from the initial gas turbine to produce steam and spin a second steam turbine. This dual generation boosts efficiency substantially.

Natural gas power plants achieve much higher efficiency rates than coal plants, which average around 33%. Upgrades to turbine technology and utilizing combined cycle generation have improved natural gas efficiency over decades of advancement. The high efficiency makes natural gas an attractive fuel source to meet energy needs with lower emissions and resource use.

Comparing Efficiencies

When comparing the efficiencies of solar panels versus natural gas power plants, solar panels tend to be significantly more efficient overall. According to SolarFeeds, solar panel efficiency ranges from 15% to 22% on average, depending on the type of solar panel technology used [1]. This means that 15-22% of the sunlight that hits the panels gets converted into usable electricity.

In contrast, the efficiency of natural gas power plants is much lower, averaging around 45% according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration [2]. This means only 45% of the potential chemical energy stored in natural gas gets converted into electrical energy. Factoring in extraction and transportation losses, the overall efficiency falls to around 30-42%.

Thus, solar panels are able to utilize sunlight to generate electricity at nearly double the efficiency of natural gas power plants. This gives solar an inherent efficiency advantage over gas for converting energy sources into usable power.

Cost Efficiency Differences

When considering overall efficiency, it’s important to look at the costs associated with solar panels versus natural gas. According to a report by Bloomberg, solar power is now about 33% cheaper than gas power in the U.S. ( Factors like government incentives, falling equipment prices, and eliminates fuel costs have driven down the price of solar power.

While natural gas plants are cheaper to build initially, the lifetime costs of solar panels are much lower since there is no recurring fuel cost. Maintenance costs are also lower for solar panels versus natural gas plants. This makes solar power more cost efficient in the long run.

When examining the levelized cost of energy (LCOE), which accounts for total lifetime costs divided by energy production, solar costs range from $36–$44 per MWh while the LCOE for natural gas combined cycle plants is around $44-68 per MWh. This indicates solar can produce cheaper energy over the system lifetime.

While natural gas may have some short term cost benefits, overall lifetime costs show solar to be the more cost efficient option in most cases. The continuing decline in solar power costs also points to solar becoming increasingly cost competitive compared to natural gas.

Environmental Impact

Both solar energy and natural gas have environmental impacts that must be considered when choosing between the two energy sources. Natural gas has dramatically lower carbon emissions than other fossil fuels like coal and oil when burned. However, natural gas is still a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the life cycle carbon emissions of natural gas are about 50-60% lower than coal and about 20-30% lower than oil. Natural gas extraction and transportation infrastructure like wells, pipelines, and compressor stations also leak methane, which is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 (Union Power, 2022).

In comparison, solar energy generates zero direct carbon emissions when operating. The only emissions related to solar energy come from manufacturing the panels, which is relatively minimal. Over the life cycle, solar energy has on average 95-98% lower carbon emissions than natural gas per unit of electricity generated (SolarFeeds, 2023). This makes solar energy the much cleaner option from an emissions standpoint.

The environmental impacts beyond emissions also favor solar energy. Natural gas drilling and fracking have raised concerns about contamination of local water supplies and induced seismic activity. Solar panels can be installed nearly anywhere with minimal land disturbance and zero water usage. Overall, solar energy provides significant environmental benefits over natural gas.

Future Outlook

Many researchers predict that solar panel efficiency will continue to improve in the coming years. Improvements in manufacturing technology and new materials are expected to boost solar cell efficiency to over 30% by 2030 according to industry projections. This compares to typical efficiency around 20% for conventional silicon solar panels today1.

Research is also underway on new photovoltaic technologies like perovskites and organic solar cells that could achieve even higher efficiency and lower costs. If these breakthroughs are commercially realized, the efficiency gap between solar and other energy sources may widen further.

In contrast, the efficiency of natural gas power plants has remained relatively steady for decades. While small improvements are possible, no major leaps in efficiency are expected. This means the efficiency advantage of solar over gas is likely to grow substantially in the decades ahead as solar innovation continues rapidly.


In summary, when comparing the efficiency of solar panels versus natural gas for electricity generation, solar panels are the clear winner. While natural gas power plants can reach efficiencies of around 50-60%, the most advanced solar panels today can achieve efficiencies exceeding 20%, with lab prototypes reaching over 40%. When you factor in capacity factor differences and transmission losses for natural gas, the real-world efficiency for solar ends up higher in many cases. Additionally, solar panel efficiency continues to steadily improve each year as technology advances, while natural gas is relatively capped in its potential.

While natural gas enjoyed a cost efficiency advantage historically, continued drops in solar panel pricing have now made solar power competitive and even cheaper in many markets. The environmental benefits of solar versus natural gas also make it more attractive. Overall, solar energy is on a trajectory to overtake natural gas in the future due to its higher efficiency potential and numerous secondary benefits.

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