In this article, we are going to consider the pros and cons of fossil fuels and renewable energy.
We will begin with the pros and cons of fossil fuels, go in-depth are the relationship between climate change and fossil fuels. We will then examine the alternatives to fossil fuels and compare renewable energy and fossil fuel costs. Finally, we will look at one type of renewable energy – solar.
Pros and cons of fossil fuels
Advantages of fossil fuels
- Fossil fuels have the ability to generate a large amount of electricity at one location such as a coal or gas fired power station.
- Coal and other fossil fuels are a cost-effective fuel source for electricity generation.
- Whist fossil fuels are not renewable there is an abundant supply of coal and exploration continues to discover new reserves of fossil fuels.
- Natural gas is very efficient for use in electricity generation.
- It is easy to locate and extract fossil fuels.
- Fossil fuels are also easy to transport with oil and natural gas pipelines.
- Fossil fuels can be used for electricity generation in any location, independent of weather and climate conditions.
- They have almost constant availability and so are reliable sources of electricity generation for baseload global demand and also as a instantly available energy source for transportation.
Disadvantages of fossil fuels
- A key disadvantage of fossil fuels is pollution. Fossil fuels emit greenhouse gasses including carbon dioxide, contributing to global warming.
- Extraction of fossil fuels such as coal causes environmental destruction and endangers the lives of coal miners.
- In addition to this intrinsic pollution, human error has also caused environmental damage due to oil spills and other incidents.
- Drilling for oil and other fossil fuels causes degradation, soil erosion and water supply pollution.
- Fossil fuels are non-renewable – they are finite as it has taken millions of years under specific conditions to form.
- Since a large amount of coal is required to generate electricity, coal power plants can only be built near coal reserves.
- Climate change is not the only disadvantage of fossil fuels, the pollution generate by fossil fuel is toxic and responsible for 2 million deaths each year globally.
Fossil fuels and climate change
In order to combat climate change the percentage of primary energy which comes from renewable sources of energy must increase to 60% by 2050 from 15% in 2020.
The amount of energy coming from nuclear power must go to 4% in 2050 from around 2% now. Although natural gas is better regarding climate change emissions than coal, the primary energy percentage of natural gas needs to fall in most climate-change frameworks.
It is worth pointing out that right now only 3 percent of global energy capacity is directly accountable by wind and solar and there are many applicational benefits to fossil fuels over renewables.
In the retail solar industry, investment tax credits and other governmental subsidies cover the cost of 26% of solar installation in the United States, dropping down to 22% in 2021.
These subsidies are small compared to the huge subsidies that governments give to the fossil fuels industry. When all subsidies are removed it turns out that solar may be the cheapest source of energy.
One key fact is worth pointing out that solar is technology as opposed to a fuel and it means that innovation will continue and research and development improve.
Alternatives to fossil fuels
Globally, nearly 90% of all energy consumption comes from fossil fuels. Alternatives to fossil fuels include sustainable energy which is define as producing and consuming energy in a matter which meets present needs without compromising future generations’ abilities to meet their own needs.
It is important to realise that up to one billion people presently do not have access to electricity and nearly have of global population depend on wood, animal, charcoal and other smoky fuel sources for cooking. In order to maintain the warming of the earth’s climate to 1.5 degrees centigrade requires the widespread rollout of electricity generation using methods that are low-emitting and also requiring increased usage of electricity for cooking and transportation.
One alternative to fossil fuels is the usage of hydrogen for electricity generation and hydrogen fuel cells in automobiles.
It is also possible to continue to use fossil fuels by implementing carbon capture and storage in which the carbon emitted from coal power plants is capture and stored unwater or underground.
Carbon capture and storage is expensive however the IPCC’s lowest cost path to keeping global warming to 2 degrees increase mass deployment of bioenergy with carbon capture and sequestration which is currently infeasible.
Renewable energy includes wind, hydroelectric and solar energy sources.
Solar and wind are intermittent sources of energy. Nuclear is sometimes considered a renewable source of energy and can form the baseload for a nation’s energy supply. Wind power may be dispersed over hundreds of square miles and are often located offshore. Each blade of the wind turbines lasts no more than 20 years.
Hydroelectric plants can last for hundreds of years and can compensate for the intermittence of solar and wind power. Hydroelectric power supplies 80% of electricity generation in Brazil but only 16% worldwide.
Biomass can be derived from living and recently living organism to produce heat or generate electricity by burning.
- Biomass has high versatility and is available in most countries so can help to reduce usage and importation of fossil fuels.
Biofuels are manufactured from biomass and are usually liquid and so can be used in transportation.
- Geothermal energy uses thermal energy generated by radioactive decay of potassium in the Earth’s crust which is obtained by drilling the ground and extracted by heat transfer fluids.
- Marine energy such as wave and tidal power is in the infancy of development.
Cost of renewable energy vs fossil fuels
The cost of renewable energy is falling quickly. In the last decade the cost of electricity generated by onshore wind turbines fell by a quarter, solar power fell even further by up to three quarters.
The price of renewable energy is expected to fall further.
Let’s put some numbers on it.
Onshore wind costs about $0.06 a kilowatt hour with some onshore windfarms able to produce at $0.04 per kilowatt hour.
Solar electricity is being generated at about $0.10 per kilowatt hour. This compares to fossil fuels which cost as low as $0.05 per kilowatt hour to as high as $0.17 per kilowatt hour.
By the end of 2020 it is predicted that solar power will cost $0.03 per hour and similarly for onshore wind. This means that solar and wind may actually be cheaper to run than coal-fired power plants.
A lot of this reduction in cost is related to governments adopting competitive procurement tenders for new electricity power generation resulting in the reduction in tariffs and due to technological innovation in the onshore wind and solar industries.
Whilst onshore wind and solar are making the greatest reductions in operational costs, other renewable energy sectors are also becoming competitive.
Offshore wind is also expected to reach $0.06 per kilowatt hour by end 2022 and beyond.
It is also expected that geothermal, hydroelectric and bioenergy sources of electricity generation will become director competitors to fossil fuels with other $1 trillion being invested in the renewables sector in the last decade alone.
Solar energy vs fossil fuels
Solar heating are systems which utilize solar thermal collectors containing fluid systems to transfer heat from the solar thermal collect to the usage point in addition to a heat storage tank or reservoir.
Solar power generates electricity than can power buildings and be collected to the electric grid. The average solar panel is project to last for at least 40 years and can be erected in remote areas.
Solar panels currently convert less than a quarter of light which hits the panel into electricity and has many difficulties to achieving widespread rollout and adoption but efficiency of solar panels is increasing.
Unlike solar, fossil fuels can be used at all times however fossil fuel extraction causes negative effects on the environment.The main factors that influence the amount of electricity that solar powers produce is the amount of sunlight that hits the panels and this is caused by seasonal factors and weather conditions.
Fossil fuels generate large amounts of electricity in one location. Fossil fuels, such as coal are cost-effective fuel sources for electricity generation. There is an abundant supply of fossil fuels, particularly coal and new reserves of fossil fuels are constantly being discovered however fossil fuels are not renewable. Natural gas, which is a fossil fuel is particularly efficient as use for electricity generation. Fossil fuels are easy to locate, extract and then transport. Electricity generation utilising fossil fuels can take place independently of weather and climate conditions are constantly available and so therefore are reliable sources of energy.
Fossil fuels emit greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide which contribute to global warming. The extraction of coal and other fossil fuels causes environmental destruction such as degradation, soil erosion and water supply pollution. Coal mining also endangers the lives of miners.In addition to this direct environmental destruction, human error causes environmental damage due to oil spills. Toxic air from fossil fuels kills up to 2 million people a year.
In order to combat climate change, the percentage of primary energy from renewable sources needs to increase from 15% in 2020 to 60% in 2050. Although natural gas is better regarding climate change emissions than coal, the percentage of primary energy coming from natural case may need to fall.
Right now, only 3 percent of global energy capacity accounts to wind and solar. Tax credits and governmental subsidies reduce the cost for installation of solar panels but the amount of governmental subsidies to the fossil fuel industry is far larger. After accounting for subsidies, solar power is the cheapest method for electricity generation. Solar technology is a technology as opposed to a fuel – innovation will increase, costs will fall.
Right now, nearly 90% of all energy consumption comes from fossil fuels. Up to one billion people presently do not have access to electricity. Three billion people use smoky fuel sources for household cooking.
To reach climate targets of 1.5-degree global warming, the widespread adopting of renewable sources for electricity is needed. One alternative for internal combustion engines is the use of hydrogen fuel. It is also possible to continue using fossil fuels with widespread carbon capture and storage.
Renewable energy includes wind, solar and hydroelectric sources. It is worth pointing out that solar and wind are intermittent sources of energy.
Nuclear is labelled by some organisations as renewable and not-renewable by others. Nuclear can form the baseload for a nation’s energy supply.
Wind power is not concentrated and may be dispersed over hundreds of square miles. Each wind blade turbine lasts no more than 20 years.
Hydroelectric plants last hundreds of years and compensate for solar and wind intermittency. Hydroelectric power supplies 16% of global electricity generation.
Biomass is derived from living/recently living organisms to produce heat which is burned to generate electricity. Biomass has high versatility and is globally available. Biofuels are liquid, generated from biomass and used in transportation.
Geothermal is extracted thermal energy, wave and tidal power are in their infancies. It is expected that geothermal, hydroelectric and bioenergy sources will be direct competitors to fossil fuels in the near term.
The cost of renewable energy is falling quickly. By the end of 2020 it is predicted that solar power will cost $0.03 per kilowatt hour. Therefore, solar and wind may be cheaper to run than coal-fired power plants. Other renewable energy sectors are also become competitive.
Solar heating systems use solar thermal collectors to generate heat. Solar power is generated by solar panels. Solar panels last for at least 40 years and can be erected in remote areas. Solar panels only convert around a quarter of light hitting the panel. There are many difficulties in achieving the widespread rollout of solar panels.