Why Are Fossil Fuels More Widely Used Than Solar Energy?

Why are fossil fuels more widely used than solar energy?

Fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas, and coal have been the dominant source of energy worldwide for over a century. In comparison, solar energy is a relatively new technology that is still gaining adoption. There are several key reasons why fossil fuels are more widely used than solar power globally.

The main factors include cost and infrastructure advantages for fossil fuels, the intermittent availability of solar energy, limitations of energy storage, and the maturity of the respective technologies. Fossil fuels benefit from established infrastructure built up over decades that extracts, refines, transports, and generates electricity from these energy sources. The technologies surrounding fossil fuels are also mature and well-understood.

Solar energy, while growing quickly, faces challenges of intermittency, storage, and transmission that have limited its adoption so far. The costs of solar have fallen dramatically in recent decades, but in most locations it remains more expensive than fossil fuels without government subsidies. Developing nations in particular often favor the lower upfront costs of fossil fuels.

This section provides an overview of why fossil fuels maintain dominance over solar energy globally, setting the stage for a deeper analysis of the relevant factors.

History and Infrastructure

Fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, and natural gas, have been utilized as energy sources for well over 200 years. The infrastructure required to discover, extract, process and distribute fossil fuels has been built up over many decades. In contrast, solar energy is a much more recent development. While solar energy technology has existed for over a century, it has only become a significant contributor to the energy mix in the last few decades. As a result, the infrastructure for fossil fuels is vastly more mature and extensive compared to solar power.

Fossil fuels have powered industrialization since the 18th century. The infrastructure required to extract and transport coal, oil and natural gas is well established across the globe. Vast networks of oil wells, pipelines, coal mines, refineries, railways and gas stations exist to support fossil fuel extraction and distribution. According to the NRDC, there are over 2.6 million miles of oil and gas pipelines in the United States alone.

Cost and Affordability

The costs of fossil fuels vs. solar energy is an important factor when comparing these energy sources. For consumers, fossil fuels have historically been cheaper on average per kilowatt-hour (kWh) than solar energy. According to Energysage, fossil fuel steam averages around 5 cents/kWh, and small-scale natural gas can be as low as 3 cents/kWh. In comparison, solar energy costs between 3-6 cents/kWh and continue to trend downwards (Energysage).

However, the costs of fossil fuels are subject to significant volatility based on global markets and events, while the costs of solar energy have been declining steadily. Consumer Affairs notes that natural gas prices in the past year have increased over 22%, resulting in higher electricity bills for many households (Consumer Affairs). In contrast, the cost to install rooftop solar has dropped 70% over the last decade, providing more cost certainty for consumers.

While fossil fuels may still have a slight edge currently in upfront costs, solar energy offers consumers long-term savings and stability. As solar technology continues to advance and installation costs decline, the cost advantage of fossil fuels is diminishing while their price volatility remains a risk factor.

Intermittency Problems

One of the main challenges with solar energy is that it suffers from intermittency issues. Solar panels only generate electricity when the sun is shining on them (Scientific American, 2015). This means solar energy cannot provide consistent power output 24 hours a day. Electric grids rely on predictable and stable energy generation to match supply with demand. The inherent variability of solar energy disrupts conventional grid planning and operation. There are times when solar farms may produce more energy than needed, and other times when solar production is low but energy demand is high. This intermittency causes integration challenges and can lead to instability in the grid if not properly managed.

Solar energy only works during daylight hours, with the amount of energy produced varying based on weather and seasons. Cloudy days and nights with no sun mean solar panels will not generate any electricity at all. Even on sunny days, energy production drops in the early morning, evening, and through shading from trees or buildings (EnergyX, 2021). Relying solely on solar energy would make it difficult to meet baseload power needs 24/7. The intermittent nature of solar remains a barrier to it becoming the dominant energy source.

Storage Limitations

One key challenge for solar energy is the lack of sufficient storage capacity to deal with intermittency issues. Unlike fossil fuels which can be continuously burned to generate electricity on demand, solar power relies on the sun shining. This means solar energy must be captured and stored effectively to provide power when the sun is not out. However, current storage technologies have limitations in the amount of energy they can store.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, utility-scale battery storage capacity in the U.S. was around 9 GW at the end of 2022, around half of which was solar plus storage (Reuters). While capacity is increasing, this is still far below the level needed to fully shift from fossil fuels to solar power. The intermittent nature of solar has hampered widescale adoption and reliance on solar energy alone. Better and more affordable grid-scale storage solutions are still needed.

Government Subsidies

One of the main drivers behind the widespread use of fossil fuels over solar energy has to do with government subsidies. In the United States, federal subsidies for fossil fuels have historically been much higher than those for renewable energy. According to the Institute for Energy Research, subsidies for renewable energy in fiscal year 2022 were almost 5 times higher than those for fossil energy, which totaled around $5.9 billion versus $1.1 billion https://www.instituteforenergyresearch.org/fossil-fuels/renewable-energy-still-dominates-energy-subsidies-in-fy-2022/. In total, the US government has paid $145 billion for energy subsidies, with $85 billion going to nuclear power and $60 billion to fossil fuels according to Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy_subsidies_in_the_United_States. This enormous subsidy gap makes fossil fuels much cheaper for energy producers.

Fossil fuel subsidies also greatly exceed government support for renewables globally. Human Rights Watch reported that fossil fuel subsidies totaled $444 billion in 2017 versus only $140 billion for renewables https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/06/07/qa-fossil-fuel-subsidies. This subsidy imbalance skews energy investment towards fossil fuels rather than solar power and other renewables.

Maturity of Technologies

Fossil fuel technologies have had over a century to mature and improve, whereas solar energy is still a relatively new technology. The first solar cell was invented in 1883, but it was incredibly inefficient at less than 1% (Source). It wasn’t until the 1954 that the first commercially viable solar cell was created by Bell Labs with 6% efficiency (Source). Since then, solar technology has improved dramatically with panels now achieving over 20% efficiency.

In comparison, coal power plants have been used to generate electricity since the 1880s. Similarly, the first natural gas power plant opened in 1892 in England. The technologies behind fossil fuel power plants have had 130+ years to incrementally improve in efficiency and performance. This massive head start has allowed fossil fuel infrastructure, supply chains, and related technologies to become deeply entrenched over the last century.

Solar power simply hasn’t had as much time to reach the same level of technological maturity as fossil fuels. While the efficiency and affordability of solar has increased exponentially in recent decades, it will take more time for solar to catch up and overcome the historical dominance of fossil fuel technologies.

Adoption Challenges

One major barrier to wider adoption of solar energy is the lack of infrastructure needed to support it on a large scale. The electric grid was built for centralized fossil fuel power plants, not distributed renewable generation like rooftop solar panels (https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/barriers-renewable-energy-technologies). Significant investments and upgrades are needed to modernize the grid and enable two-way power flows. Interconnection standards also vary widely, creating headaches for solar installers operating across different utility territories.

Regulations and policies often disadvantage renewable energy as well. Fossil fuels receive over $20 billion in subsidies annually in the U.S., compared to just $1 billion for solar (https://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy21osti/80532.pdf). Permitting and taxes also impose disproportionate costs on solar. And utility regulations frequently limit or prohibit third-party ownership models like solar leases that have helped expand residential solar access.

On the consumer side, the high upfront costs of solar systems can deter adoption, especially for moderate and low-income households. Complexity around financing, incentives, permitting, and interconnection creates hassles that stymie interest. And there is a general lack of awareness and familiarity with solar technologies and their benefits.

Developing Nations

Fossil fuels are often easier to establish and utilize in developing areas compared to renewable sources like solar power. Many developing countries lack the infrastructure and stability to support large-scale renewable energy projects. Fossil fuels can be extracted and burned with relatively simple technology, while solar power requires advanced materials, batteries, and grid connections. According to the Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy, developing nations currently consume over half the world’s energy, albeit at lower per capita rates than developed countries. Their energy demand is rapidly rising as populations grow and industrialize. The International Energy Agency finds electricity usage growing quickly across emerging markets as industrial motors and appliances become more common.



In summary, fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas are much more widely used than solar energy for several reasons. Fossil fuels have over a century of infrastructure built around them and benefit from economies of scale, making them significantly cheaper than solar power. While costs for solar are decreasing, it remains intermittent and unreliable without energy storage solutions, which are limited. Most governments also provide subsidies that make fossil fuels artificially inexpensive. Although solar is a promising technology, it faces barriers to large-scale adoption in developing nations lacking capital and infrastructure. The future is likely to see a growth in solar, but fossil fuels will probably remain dominant globally unless policies or technologies shift fundamentally.

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