Is Solar Energy Better Than Fossil Fuel Energy?

Is solar energy better than fossil fuel energy?

The world today relies heavily on fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas for energy needs in power generation, heating, transportation and more. Fossil fuels have powered economic growth and development, but come at an environmental cost. There is now a major push towards renewable energy like solar and wind to provide clean alternatives to fossil fuels and mitigate climate change.

Solar energy has clear environmental benefits over fossil fuels as a clean, renewable energy source that does not produce air and water pollution or greenhouse gases. However, solar currently has limitations in storage and cost that mean fossil fuels are still heavily relied upon. This article evaluates whether solar energy is better than fossil fuels considering the environmental impacts, costs, reliability, storage, adoption rates and other factors.

The thesis is that while solar energy has environmental benefits over fossil fuels, limitations in storage and costs mean fossil fuels are still heavily utilized in energy systems across the world.


The use of solar energy dates back centuries. According to the Department of Energy, humans first harnessed the sun’s rays using magnifying glass to concentrate heat and start fires as early as the 7th century BC ( Ancient Greeks and Romans designed their houses to capture the sun’s heat in the winter. In the 18th century, researchers started experimenting with solar ovens and solar collectors.

The modern photovoltaic solar cell was created in 1954 by researchers at Bell Labs. This paved the way for solar panels that could convert sunlight directly into electricity ( Through the latter half of the 20th century, photovoltaic solar power advanced steadily with improvements in materials and efficiencies. The development of thin-film solar cells in the 1990s helped further reduce costs.

In contrast, fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas have been used as energy sources since the industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries. Coal powered early steam engines and coal-fired plants generated some of the first electricity. Petroleum-based fuels propelled automobiles in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The environmental impacts of fossil fuels were not well understood initially, but became apparent over time as consumption increased dramatically.

Environmental Impact

Solar energy has a clear environmental advantage over fossil fuels because solar panels produce electricity without emitting greenhouse gases or air pollution. Fossil fuel power plants, which burn coal, oil, and natural gas to produce energy, are a major contributor to climate change. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, fossil fuel combustion accounted for 93% of total U.S. human-caused carbon dioxide emissions in 2019. In contrast, solar panels generate clean, renewable power from the sun without producing any direct waste or pollution ( The development of solar energy can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the impacts of global climate change.


The upfront cost of installing solar panels is still higher than building comparable fossil fuel power plants. However, costs have declined dramatically in the past decade, with the average price to install solar dropping over 70% since 2010 [1]. Recent analysis shows utility-scale solar electricity costs between $0.037 and $0.042 per kWh, compared to $0.044 to $0.068 for fossil fuel electricity [2].

While upfront costs are higher for solar, lifetime costs can be lower. Factoring in fuel and maintenance over a project’s lifespan evens out the playing field. Fossil fuels require ongoing expenditures for fuel, while sunlight is free. Solar also requires less maintenance over decades of operation. Considering total lifetime costs makes solar very competitive.


One key difference between fossil fuels and solar energy is reliability. Fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas can be burned on demand whenever electricity is needed. Power plants that use fossil fuels have control over when and how much electricity they generate.[1] In contrast, solar energy relies on sunshine, which can be inconsistent due to weather, seasons, and time of day. Solar panels only produce electricity when the sun is shining.[2]

During cloudy weather or at night, solar panel output drops sharply or stops altogether. This intermittency requires energy storage systems, like batteries, to store surplus solar energy for use when the sun isn’t shining.[3] Reliably getting solar power whenever it’s needed can be challenging and complex. Fossil fuel plants are generally able to provide electricity 24/7 without energy storage.[1]

However, improvements in energy storage technology and weather forecasting allow grid operators to better predict and manage variations in solar output. Reliability of solar continues to increase as more solar capacity is added to grids and integrated with storage and other generation sources.[2]



One of the key challenges with solar energy is storing the energy for when the sun is not shining, such as at night or on cloudy days. There are several storage technologies used with solar power systems:

Batteries are one of the most common ways to store solar energy. Lithium-ion batteries in particular have become popular thanks to their high efficiency and decreasing costs. However, batteries still remain one of the most expensive components of a solar system. Lead-acid batteries are a cheaper option but come with lower efficiency and shorter lifespans (

Thermal energy storage allows heat from the sun to be stored in fluids like molten salt. The heat can then be used to generate steam to produce electricity. This helps solar thermal power plants provide electricity long after sunset.

Other storage methods like pumped hydro and compressed air energy storage allow solar energy to be stored in the form of potential energy. However these require specific geographic formations and have high upfront infrastructure costs (

Ongoing research aims to improve storage technologies and reduce costs, which will help make solar power available 24/7.


Fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas still dominate the energy landscape, accounting for about 80% of total energy consumption worldwide. However, the adoption of solar energy has been rising steadily over the past decade.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), the amount of solar installed in the U.S. has increased more than 50-fold over the past decade, from 1.2 gigawatts (GW) in 2008 to over 100 GW today. The SEIA predicts that solar will quadruple in the next 5 years to over 400 GW. Solar Industry Research Data | SEIA

The share of homeowners in the U.S. with rooftop solar panels has also been rising, from just 4% in 2016 to 11% in 2022. Home solar panel adoption continues to rise in the U.S.

Globally, residential solar adoption rates vary widely by country, from under 1% in some nations to over 20% in leading markets like Australia and Germany. Overall, solar currently provides about 3% of global electricity demand, but its share is projected to rise significantly in the coming decades.


The solar industry continues to innovate to improve efficiency and lower costs. Some key developments include:

Perovskite solar cells – Perovskite is a crystalline structure that is easy to manufacture and can reach higher efficiencies than traditional silicon cells. Perovskite cells are still in R&D but have potential for greater efficiency and lower costs.

Solar paint – Companies are developing solar paint that can turn nearly any surface into a solar panel. The paint contains solar nanocrystals that capture sunlight. This could enable new applications like solar-powered cars, planes, and buildings.

Solar windows – Startups are creating solar windows using transparent solar cells. The windows could generate electricity from sunlight while still being see-through. This could turn skyscrapers into solar power plants.

Advances in storage – Better batteries and thermal storage techniques are being developed to store solar energy for overnight use and cloudy days. Cheap, large-scale storage could overcome solar’s intermittency issues.

If these new innovations succeed, they could dramatically expand solar’s capabilities and reduce costs, perhaps making it the dominant energy source of the future.


Government policies and incentives have played a major role in the adoption of solar energy. Many federal, state and local governments offer tax credits, rebates, and other financial incentives to make solar power more affordable and encourage homeowners and businesses to install solar panels.

For example, the federal government offers a 26% tax credit through 2032 for residential solar installations under the Solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC) ( The ITC has helped the solar industry grow by over 10,000% since it was implemented in 2006. Many states also offer additional tax credits and rebates on top of the federal ITC.

Solar renewable energy certificates (SRECs) are another financial incentive used in over a dozen states. Utilities are required to source a portion of their electricity from solar, and they can purchase SRECs from solar system owners to meet those requirements ( This helps create a revenue stream for solar panel owners.

Net metering policies are also critical. They allow solar customers to earn bill credits for excess electricity sent back to the grid. Forty states have mandatory net metering laws, making solar more economically viable (


In reviewing the main points, solar energy has several clear advantages over fossil fuel energy. Solar power is renewable, abundant, and causes little to no carbon emissions or pollution. After high upfront costs, it can generate electricity very inexpensively. Solar also has the benefit of being deployable in small, distributed setups and holds promise for increasing energy access. However, solar currently lacks the reliability and energy density of fossil fuels. Challenges remain around energy storage and infrastructure to distribute solar electricity at scale. Adoption continues to increase globally but remains a small fraction of overall energy production.

Looking ahead, costs for solar technology should continue to decrease as production expands. With supportive policies and advances that increase storage capacity, solar has the potential to become a mainstream energy source. But fossil fuels currently dominate and will remain a key part of the global energy system for years to come. Solar energy offers clear environmental and sustainability benefits, but fully transitioning from fossil fuels will require overcoming technical limitations and integration challenges.

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