Comparing the true cost of Fossil Fuel vs. Solar Energy

The first photovoltaic cell was invented in 1839 by Alexandre Edmond Becquerel but Solar did not become commercially adopted until recently because of the financial cost. When buying fossil fuel, only the direct cost of the fuel is incurred but solar has other associated costs such as installation, land purchase e.t.c.

However, now that Solar has become more affordable and has been widely in commercial globally use over the last few years, the trust cost of fossil fuel vs Solar energy can be better ascertained.

True Cost of Fossil Fuel

Financial Impact

Based on data gathered from the United States energy industry, on average in 2017, Utility Scale Solar cost 10.19 cents per kilowatts hour (kWh) and Residential solar cost on average 12.22 cents per kWh; By comparison , in 2008 Natural gas to power cost around 7 to 10 cents per kWh and coal was around 7 to 14 cents per kWh.

According to a Havard University study, Fossil fuels are significantly more expensive at around 17.8 cents per KWH when environmental externalities such as carbon emission and human health damages are factored in.

Water Impact 

Based on various studies carried out, an estimate of 52 billion cubic meters of fresh water is used in the production of energy globally on an annual basis. Much of this ends up as wastewater in the drilling, extraction, and production of fossil fuels. Additionally, the production of fossil fuel is highly polluting to water and dangerous to sea life; and the cost of cleaning up an accident is usually high, such as in the case of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico which has cost a total of $65 billion to date to clean up, including a fine of $20.8 billion.

Land Impact

The mining of coal and the drilling of oil and natural gas has been known for several years to be extremely detrimental to land, and regions such as Niger Delta in Nigeria which used to be a rich and arable farmland and the riverine area is now almost completely damaged as a result of oil pollution. Apart from other from the visible damages, underground mining also causes issues such as acidic drainage that is detrimental to humans, animals, plants and the environment in general.

CO2 Emission Impact

As is largely known,  fossil fuel is a leading source of CO2 emission that is accelerating global warming and damaging human health. CO2 emissions have increased by about 90% since 1970; emissions from industrial processes and fossil fuel account for about 78% of the total greenhouse gas emitted between 1970 and 2011. Although Natural Gas overall is cleaner than oil, Methane, the main substance of natural gas, has 32 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide over a 100-year range.

Human Health Impact

Fossil fuel risks for humans are present at numerous points in the fossil fuel life cycle. At the exploration and production stage, miners are exposed to potential mine explosions and collapses as well as contracting dangerous illnesses such as lung disease. According to a study carried out by Harvard researchers, coal is closely linked with cardiovascular, kidney and lung diseases and also lower birth rates and premature births among people living in areas close to mining operations. Chemicals resulting from fracking are known to be a high cause of cancer and can also cause immune system and cardiovascular dysfunctions.

The conclusion of the Cost of Fossil Fuel

The total financial cost of fossil fuel is difficult to ascertain overall, however, the cost of specific fossil fuels is enough to imagine that the total cost is astronomical. For example, the cost of the damage from mining coal to generate 4.36 cents kilowatts per hour of electricity is around $74.5 billion per annum.  All studies carried out to date on the real economic impact of fossil fuel show that the cost is dangerously high to the well being of earth and is better off spent on developing cleaner sources.

True Cost of Solar

Solar has many benefits as a source for generating electricity in comparison to fossil fuels, however, although the sunshine is free, there are costs associated with its usage.

Water Impact

Although water is not required in the production of Solar electricity, about 650 gallons is used per megawatt hour (MWH) of electricity in the manufacturing of components. Nonetheless, the use of water overall in Solar energy is much less than required in Fossil Fuel. Also, Solar does not pose an ongoing threat to water during the electricity generation phase.

Land Impact

Land use is an issue in Utility-scale projects because Solar farms take up quite a large area of land and cannot easily share a land with other industries such as agriculture. However, Utility-scale solar projects are not as popular globally as rooftop solar projects which use literally rooftop of buildings thereby requiring no land. For example, rooftop Solar accounts for 70% of installations in Germany.

CO2 Emission Impact

Solar is a much cleaner source of electricity but it does not completely eliminate carbon emission. Solar plants have an environmental footprint, for example, Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) has a carbon dioxide (CO2) footprint of 20 grams per kWh of electricity generated. Photovoltaic Power Plants also emit CO2 between 12 grams per kWh and 24 grams per kWh on a lifecycle basis using multi-crystalline silicon panels.

In the final analysis, while Solar does emit CO2, it is still much better in comparison to coal which emits around 1,000 grams of CO2 for the amount of electricity generated by Concentrated Solar Power (CSP).

Human Health Impact

The primary human risk associated with Solar energy is the standard industrial health and safety risk around the installation.

The conclusion of the Cost of Solar 

The upfront financial cost required to implement a Solar project is the only major cost, however with the declining price of Solar components, Solar is now more affordable and a preferred choice for power project developers.

In conclusion, while Fossil fuel infrastructure is well established, the true cost analysis above reveals that the total cost of implementing Solar is far cheaper than the cost of using fossil fuel in the medium to long-term.

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