Solar Energy vs. Fossil Fuels



The answer we’ve heard for years is to turn to renewable types of energy because fossil fuels are being depleted and a danger to the environment. At the top of the list of competition for fossil fuels is solar energy. But there are always questions about whether it is a viable replacement for fossil fuels that can meet the energy needs of the public now, and most importantly, for the future. Here are some answers to questions many people have about how solar energy compares to the fossil fuels that we’ve all grown dependent on.

Is solar energy a viable fuel source?

When residential solar energy equipment was first made available to homeowners it was costly. The people who made the switch were usually those who wanted to make a conscious effort to reduce their carbon footprints. But they also had the means to invest in the equipment and services needed to make that switch. In the beginning, like many other new technologies, initial adopters often paid more until the technologies became more mainstream.

Yes, solar energy is increasingly becoming a viable fuel source for everyone. Today, switching to solar energy is far more affordable with the help of programs like the solar tax credit. This incentive provides a tax credit of 30% of the cost to install solar power at your home. While this credit is in effect at 30% until the end of 2032, once it expires, solar energy will still remain a low-priced source of power as prices will most likely continue to drop. Meanwhile, oil, gas, and coal prices are likely to continue to increase, especially as sources are depleted and the costs to obtain these fuels grow.

Can solar energy replace fossil fuels?

People often ask whether solar energy has the ability to replace fossil fuels. Just like fossil fuels, solar energy does have its pros and cons. As a society, we have grown used to the convenience of fossil fuels. Take driving your car for instance. If you plan to take a road trip, all you need to worry about is having enough gas in your tank to get you to the next gas station. However, if you have an electric car that you charge at home with electricity from a power source that uses solar energy, you need to be concerned about where the nearest charging stations are and how much time you’ll need to charge the car before moving forward on your trip. It may not feel as simple as adding gas to the tank.

Like switching from a fossil-fueled vehicle to an electric car, going solar means you have to make some adjustments in your habits. Unless you have a solar energy installation that includes battery storage, which many don’t, you probably do not have the ability to rely on solar energy 24 hours a day. But even without energy storage capabilities, it is possible to change your electric usage to reduce your reliance on the power company that burns fuel to generate electricity.

Is solar energy better than fossil fuels?

Outside the limitation that solar energy cannot be used 24 hours a day without a storage solution, it is better than fossil fuels. The sun provides a free and renewable source of energy. And the efforts to harness that energy has very little impact on the environment, unlike fossil fuels. To harvest or find more fossil fuel resources, the land needs to be disturbed and destroyed through drilling. This impacts not only wildlife, but our most precious resources, the water we drink, and the air we breathe.

Why is solar energy cleaner than fossil fuels?

Burning fossil fuels creates pollution that leads to smog conditions in big cities and health hazards. Plus, no matter what you may have heard, there is no way to make burning coal safe. To add to the attack on the Earth, burning fossil fuels creates greenhouse gas emissions, including carbon dioxide, which jeopardizes the current and future health of every living creature, including humans. In comparison, while making equipment for solar systems may involve fossil fuels, once the solar system is in place and working, there are no emissions. Solar energy is a clean energy. Even more importantly, as long as the sun shines, there is endless energy to harness.

How is solar energy harnessed?

Our early ancestors realized that the unlimited energy of the sun was useful for many purposes even if they did not have advanced means to harness it. One of the earliest solar energy collection devices was the solar oven (aka thermal collector box) used in the 1830s by British astronomer John Herschel to cook while on an expedition in Africa. But today, advanced technologies are available that allow people to collect and convert solar energy to power homes, swimming pools, commercial and manufacturing buildings and processes, and more.

Harnessing solar energy is now accomplished through the use of solar photovoltaic (PV) devices, also known as solar cells. If you have ever used a light-powered calculator, you have used a PV cell on a small scale. To harness energy for your home, multiple PV cells are arranged in panels that are installed on your roof or mounted on the ground to create a PV array. Depending on the number of panels in your array (or how many you need), you could collect and convert enough of the sun’s energy to fully power your home. On a bigger scale, power companies and larger business enterprises have built massive arrays that cover acres of land. These expansive systems are capable of powering thousands of homes or large manufacturing plants.


What factors influence a solar panel's output?

Several factors influence how well solar panels will collect solar energy that can be converted into useful electricity. The main factor is the amount of sunlight that can reach the panels (available sunlight depends a lot on location). Broken down further, this means how long the sun is out, the time of year, and weather conditions.

Tools, including solar panel calculators, can help you determine how many solar panels would you need to effectively power your home and the costs involved using your location. These calculators can also make reasonable estimation of whether making the switch to solar energy and lessening your reliance on fossil fuels is a smart choice for you, both financially and in your efforts to reduce your carbon footprint.

 - Author of Solar Reviews

Andrew Sendy

Solar Industry Expert

Andy is arguably the most qualified rooftop solar expert in America. He is in a unique position, having founded a large solar company but now being independent of any particular company. He has appeared on CNBC, has been referenced in public hearings concerning the rooftop solar industry ( such as the recent CPUC NEM 3 decision) and has been referenced by many major publications such as the Wall Street Journal, Business Week and many others.

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