How Would You Compare Geothermal To Solar?

geothermal energy comes from the earth's core while solar energy comes from the sun.

Geothermal and solar power are both renewable energy sources that provide an alternative to fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas. Geothermal energy harnesses heat from within the earth while solar power captures energy from the sun. Both resources offer clean and virtually limitless energy but utilize very different technologies to generate electricity.

This article provides an in-depth comparison of geothermal and solar power across several key factors including efficiency, cost, capacity, environmental impact and limitations.


Geothermal energy is thermal energy generated and stored in the Earth. It comes from the heat produced deep within the Earth’s core as well as the decay of radioactive particles near the planet’s surface. Geothermal energy is extracted by drilling into underground reservoirs of steam and hot water to produce electricity. In some areas, hot water near the surface can be used directly for heating homes and buildings.

Solar energy is energy from the sun. It is harnessed using a range of technologies such as photovoltaics (PV), which converts sunlight into electricity using semiconducting materials, and solar heating, which uses the sun’s thermal energy to heat water or air. Solar energy technologies use the sun’s energy and light to provide heat, light, hot water, electricity, and even cooling for homes, businesses, and industry.

Energy Source

Geothermal energy comes from tapping into pockets of steam, hot water, or hot rocks found deep below the Earth’s surface. The internal heat of the planet, from radioactive decay and residual heat from the planet’s formation, produces this geothermal energy.

Solar energy comes directly from the power emitted by the sun in the form of radiation. The sun produces energy through nuclear fusion reactions at its core. This solar radiation travels to Earth and can be captured and converted into useful forms of energy like heat and electricity.

Technology Used

Geothermal energy utilizes steam or water reservoirs found beneath the Earth’s surface to spin turbines and generate electricity. Wells are drilled into underground reservoirs to tap into hot water or steam, which rises up through the wells and powers turbines at power plants, in a process similar to natural gas and coal plants.

Solar power harnesses energy from the sun to produce electricity using photovoltaic (PV) panels or concentrated solar power systems. PV panels contain photovoltaic cells made from semiconductor materials that convert sunlight into electrical current. Concentrated solar power systems use lenses or mirrors to focus sunlight onto heat-transfer fluids that produce steam to spin electricity-generating turbines.


The efficiency of solar and geothermal differ based on the technologies used for each energy source. Solar photovoltaic panels typically convert 15-20% of the sunlight that hits them into usable energy, with lab tests reaching over 40%. Geothermal power plants are generally more efficient, converting 30-35% of the natural heat from the earth into electricity. However, some forms of geothermal—such as ground source heat pumps that tap shallow groundwater to provide space heating and cooling—are 200-400% efficient with the help of additional energy from electricity.

Overall, a typical geothermal plant has a higher efficiency rate than a typical solar facility. But solar efficiency rates are improving, and certain geothermal technologies like heat pumps can leverage extra energy to achieve remarkably high efficiency in using the earth’s natural heat. Efficiency alone does not determine the overall value or impact of these renewable resources.


The cost of installing geothermal heating and cooling systems is higher than solar systems. The average cost to install a geothermal system ranges from $20,000 to $30,000, compared to solar PV systems which average $15,000 to $25,000 depending on the size.

However, geothermal systems have lower operating costs over their lifespan. Geothermal systems can last over 25 years with proper maintenance. Since the earth’s temperature below ground remains stable year-round, geothermal systems provide consistent heating and cooling performance, resulting in more predictable energy bills.

In contrast, solar system performance relies on inconsistent weather and sunlight exposure. While solar energy itself is free, solar systems require more maintenance and replacement of components over time. Most solar PV systems last 15-25 years before needing replacement.

Overall, geothermal systems have higher upfront installation costs but can pay for themselves over the long term through lower operating costs and longevity.

Capacity Factor

Capacity factor is an efficiency metric that measures how much electricity a power plant generates over a period of time relative to its maximum possible output. A power plant with a high capacity factor provides a more consistent power output throughout the year, rather than fluctuating.

Geothermal plants have a high capacity factor of around 90% on average. This means geothermal plants can provide consistent power output essentially 24/7, with only occasional maintenance downtime. Geothermal energy can be considered a “baseload” renewable energy source, providing a constant supply of green electricity to the grid.

Solar plants have a much lower capacity factor, averaging around 25% globally. This means solar plants only generate electricity when the sun is shining. However, capacity factors for utility-scale solar farms can reach up to about 30% due to sun tracking and other optimizations.

Environmental Impact

Solar and geothermal energy have significantly less impact on the environment than traditional energy sources like fossil fuels. If we compare environmental impacts, here are some key facts:

  • Solar has no direct emissions or greenhouse gases during electricity generation. However, there is some environmental impact from manufacturing solar panels. Around 86% of solar’s life cycle emissions happen during manufacturing in the supply chain.
  • Geothermal energy processes nearly eliminate greenhouse gas emissions. However, some types of geothermal power plants can release gases like hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, methane, and carbon dioxide. New technologies are working to capture these emissions. On the whole, emissions from geothermal are much lower than traditional power sources.
  • Both geothermal and solar energy use very little land area compared to other sources like coal or nuclear plants. And the land can often still be used for other purposes like grazing.
  • Solar and geothermal have minimal negative impact on wildlife or the natural habitat if sited properly.

Overall, solar and geothermal energy are much cleaner options than traditional power plants. And continued technology improvements are further reducing environmental impacts over time.


Geothermal energy has some limitations compared to solar:

  • Availability – Geothermal depends on access to underground hot reservoirs, so it is limited based on geographical location. Solar can be utilized in more areas.
  • Initial Cost – The upfront cost of drilling geothermal wells and installing turbines can be high, although there are no fuel costs after installation. Solar installations can have lower initial costs although there are ongoing maintenance costs.
  • Thermal Pollution – Although sustainable, geothermal energy can release chemicals and heat energy that, if not cycled properly, can pollute the local environment.
  • Land Intensity – Large geothermal power plants require a significant amount of land area. Solar/PV installations can range in size from small rooftop systems to larger utility-scale installations.

The main limitations of solar energy revolve around the requirement of sunlight – solar PV production may be affected by issues like nighttime, seasonal variations, cloud cover, and air pollution/dust etc. Also, storage and grid capacity issues remain for larger solar installations.


In conclusion, both geothermal and solar energy show great promise as renewable energy sources, but they differ in some key ways.

Geothermal taps into the Earth’s internal heat, providing a constant supply of energy unaffected by weather or time of day. While high upfront costs can be prohibitive, geothermal plants run at high capacity factors with minimal operational costs over decades of lifespan. However, viable sites are limited to certain geographic locations.

Solar PV and thermal harness the sun’s energy using panels that convert light to electricity. Solar costs have dropped dramatically, leading to rapid growth, but output depends on adequate sunlight. Overall costs are competitive, but storage is needed to provide power when the sun isn’t shining.

Both sources produce negligible greenhouse gas emissions during operation. Combining geothermal, solar, and other renewables could enable a 100% renewable electric grid with each technology balancing the other’s weaknesses through diversity and storage.

In terms of scalability and widespread adoption, solar has greater potential than geothermal. But for reliable baseline power, geothermal plays an important role where available. There is no definitive winner between these technologies – both help transition our energy economy to a cleaner and sustainable model.

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