In the past few years, our beautiful planet is witnessing never-seen-before extreme climatic events like floods, droughts, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and volcanoes. When we search for the reason behind such a turn of events, the answer that emerges is climate change.
One of the major contributors to climate change is greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from burning fossil fuels.
Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the mid 18th century, the use of fossil fuels like coal and oil has been going up at a steady pace. More than two centuries later, we became aware of the consequences of our over-reliance on fossil fuels.
In the quest to find sustainable and non-polluting energy sources, our scientists went back a few millennia and rediscovered the amazing potential of solar and wind energies. The technologies available then made them too expensive and cumbersome for mass use. However, in the last 50 years, incredible advances made in technology have helped us overcome these hurdles.
Now, renewable energy can compete with fossil energy on all fronts. However, the urgency of the situation fueled by the devastating effects of climate change is forcing world countries to switch to renewable energy quicker and also encourage their citizens to make the transition.
Unlike fossil fuels, solar and wind energy systems can be installed in homes to meet the energy demands of the household. Freedom from grid energy and ever-rising utility rates are enticing more and more households to switch to solar energy. Financial incentives like federal tax credit are working in favor of renewable energy.
Despite sincere efforts, we are still finding it hard to shake off our dependence on fossil energy entirely, though we are fully aware that we will run out of them in a few decades if we don’t cut down their usage.
This would be the right time to compare the two – fossil fuels and renewable energy – and weigh their pros and cons. Read on to learn about how both stack up against each other.
How does renewable energy work?
Renewable energy is the electricity generated from sources that are continually being replenished. Unlike fossil fuels, there is no worry of running out of renewable energy resources. The best examples of renewable energy sources are solar, wind, hydropower, biomass, and geothermal.
Often renewable energy is referred to as clean energy or sustainable energy. Though there are some common points, they are not the same. Clean energy refers to energy sources that don’t have environmental impacts. Any energy source can be sustainable if it “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.
Solar and wind energy are renewable as well as clean and sustainable.
Renewable energy vs fossil fuels
As renewable energy is gaining more and more share in energy production and we are trying to scale down our use of fossil fuels, it is important for the right information to reach the people. This can help them understand why switching over to renewable energy is good.
Here is a comparative study of renewable energy and fossil fuels to help you understand the recent hype about renewables.
How do they differ?
Both are energy resources that are used in electricity generation. However, the similarities end right there.
Renewable energy sources get replenished naturally as they are used up. The time taken for replenishment is short or not applicable as in the case of some renewable energy like solar and wind.
The main renewable energy resources currently used in energy production are solar, wind, hydropower, geothermal, and biomass.
Fossil fuels are also natural resources used in energy generation. However, they differ from renewable energy sources in multiple ways. Fossil fuels are formed deep down the earth by the action of various geological processes over thousands or even millions of years.
This means the fossil fuels we use up today will be replenished in another million years. That is as good as not being replenished. This is the reason why fossil fuels are called non-renewable though, in theory, they can replenish.
The prominent fossil fuels for energy generation are coal, oil, and natural gas.
After reading this, you may think that the classification of energy sources is clear-cut. It is anything but. For example, consider biomass. It is included as a renewable resource because the wood from trees can be replenished. However, it is as polluting as fossil fuels.
Another example is natural gas. Often it is referred to as clean energy as it is cleaner than coal. However, it is a highly polluting and unsustainable resource.
The renewable energy sector is expanding at a faster pace
Even though we realized the harmful effects of fossil fuels in the mid 20th century and started looking for alternative energy sources, renewable energy gained popularity only in the 21st century. Earlier, the main hurdle for its widespread use was technology and pricetag.
Meanwhile natural gas gained a bigger market share as they are less polluting than coal and oil. However, as cheaper and more efficient technologies were developed to capture renewable energy and utilize them in energy generation, in the last decade, their market share saw a dramatic rise.
Surprising even market experts, in the last decade, the growth in the renewable energy market overtook that of natural gas or other fossil fuels. One of the main reasons for this growth is the active interest and encouragement offered by federal, state, and local governments for renewable energy installations.
Besides promoting home systems, governments are actively promoting community-level to utility-scale power generation from renewable sources.
Renewable energy is now cheaper than fossil fuels
For this, we need to thank the advancements in technology. In the early days, solar panels were made from monocrystalline silicon, which is very expensive, the invention of polycrystalline silicon brought down the price a bit and the latest thin-film panels have made solar energy cheaper than fossil fuels.
The affordability of renewable energy is taking away one of the main advantages of fossil fuels. In ideal conditions, the cost of renewable energy generation using solar energy is half the cost of fossil fuels.
Another good news for renewable energy is that its price is coming down at a steady pace, while the cost of energy production using fossil fuels has always gone up.
Renewable energy is cleaner and greener than fossil fuels
When energy is generated by burning fossil fuels, it leads to unhealthy and unwelcome byproducts. Air pollution is a serious challenge, while GHG emissions are creating devastating effects like global warming and climate change.
On the other hand, renewable energy sources like solar and wind are cleaner and greener. The energy generation process itself is free of pollution and GHG emissions. However, in the manufacture, transportation, construction, and maintenance of solar and wind installations, some levels of pollution and GHG emissions cannot be avoided.
Fossil fuels continue their stranglehold on energy generation
Despite the tremendous growth of the renewable energy sector in recent years, the fossil fuel industry continues to dominate energy production. Governments are finding it hard to do away with fossil fuel subsidies. However, among fossil fuels, natural gas has overtaken coal as the most popular energy resource.
This breakdown will help understand where we stand with various energy resources in the US.
- Natural gas – 38%
- Coal – 22%
- Renewables – 20%
- Nuclear – 19%
- Oil – 1%
This may not paint a promising picture for renewable energy but if you compare these figures with ones from a decade back, you will understand how far we have progressed.
Why renewable energy is better than fossil fuels?
Low levels of GHG emissions and air pollution are some of the most prominent advantages of renewable energy over fossil fuels. This has a huge impact on the threat posed by global warming and climate change.
Another advantage enjoyed by renewable energy is its renewability. The resource gets replenished at the same rate as it is getting used up. This is one of the major drawbacks of fossil fuels. They take millions of years to form and are as good as a finite resource.
Can renewable energy replace fossil fuels?
With each passing year, renewable energy is gaining ground over fossil fuels. At this pace, it should be able to garner a bigger share of energy production than fossil fuels soon.
However, if renewable energy can completely replace fossil fuels remains to be seen. As long as fossil fuels are available, at least for some purposes, they will continue to be preferred over renewable energy.
On the other hand, if we run out of fossil fuels, we will be forced to look for alternatives and renewable energy is the ideal candidate to fill the role. The possibility of replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy may come true. Maybe our scientists will come up with an altogether new energy source or improve an under-utilized one like hydrogen or tidal power.
Green energy vs fossil fuels is a debate that is still being hotly contested. While fossil fuels have been the dominant source of energy for many centuries, renewable energy is starting to gain traction due to its environmental benefits and sustainability.
We need to move away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy if we want to save our planet.