The world as we know it is not in great condition.
Polar ice caps are melting and thus causing higher sea levels, temperatures are increasing, drought is on the rise, weather conditions have become very unstable and unpredictable, and there are many more changes taking place that we will get into as we go through this article.
Most people would argue that this is due to humanity’s major dependence on fossil fuels to produce energy; those being coal, oil, natural gas, and so on.
But is there really a viable solution to this? Is there a clear winner in the solar vs coal debate? We think there is but it doesn’t come without its costs.
Let’s start this article about the difference between solar and coal with a little infographic.
What is the most expensive?
So which is cheaper, coal or solar energy? There’s a lot of back and forth on this topic so we’re going to break it down for you.
Fossil fuel plants, such as those for coal or gas, are cheaper, but that’s because the technology used to harness these fuels has already been invented and it’s easier to contain than cleaner energy.
But these sources of energy won’t last forever.
Coal is a limited resource and it’s estimated that there are only a remaining 100 years till we have consumed it all, the same goes for oil and gas which are estimated to be used up within the next 50 years (TED-Ed, 2017).
There is already the capacity to harness renewable energy but on a lower scale than fossil fuels.
It was noted in 2017 that the marginal costs to produce wind energy was at $60-70/MWh while the energy from an already built coal plant is less than $40/MWh (The Conversation, 2017).
So, it costs a lot more to invent the technology to harness this renewable energy and we do not yet have the technology to contain the energy in a way that is feasible on a large scale. Although, there have now been advancements with lithium-ion batteries that now hold a lot more energy than was previously possible.
In the long run, the only way moving forward will be through renewable energy, as its impact on the environment is minimum and realistically there are only a limited amount of years left till resources such as coal run out.
Production of Coal
More than half of the electricity in the U.S. is generated by the coal industry, thus giving it an important role in the economy.
Coal can be processed in two ways: surface or underground mining.
Surface mining is the way in which most of the coal in the USA is produced. It is a cheaper and more viable option than underground mining. Surface mining is when the coal can be reached from up to less than 200 feet below surface level. Once the land has served its purpose it can then be covered with topsoil and used for agricultural purposes.
Underground mines are more what we are used to seeing on our television screens with a web of tunnels spreading deep underground, which can sometimes be several hundreds of feet below surface level. In this instance, machines are used to dig out the coal such as draglines, shovels, etc. The coal is then transported to a coal plant where it is cleaned from impurities, such as dirt and rocks, which allows the coal to heat to a higher temperature.
Production of Solar
As previously mentioned, being a renewable energy source, solar power is cleaner and more reliable than coal.
The environmental impact it has is incomparable to the harm that coal production causes, as well as the detrimental impact it has on our overall health through the fumes that are created when the coal is burned.
The main use that most people use in their own homes is that of solar-powered photovoltaic (PV) panels. These panels absorb the sun’s rays and convert this into electricity by “exciting the electrons in silicon cells using the photons of light from the sun” (NW Wind And Solar.com, nd). The amount of energy produced is obviously dependent on the amount of sunlight that reaches the solar panels. So it is important that the panels are facing the right direction without obstruction at the peak hours of sunlight.
Environmental and Social Impact of Coal vs Solar Energy
Even though many may argue that solar energy is clean and good for the environment, it still leaves its mark on the earth.
There would need to be a lot of open space for the solar panels to be used as a sustainable option for cleaner energy. This means the loss of land and habitats that may have had their own ecosystems.
Apart from this, there is the impact left by the materials used in the manufacturing of the panels on site, the use of water, and the impact of how big the actual project would be.
However, once the manufacturing of the panels is done and the panels are in place they do not cause any harm to the environment and they do not emit any CO2, meaning they do not do any further harm.
The effects of coal mining on the local environment depend on the type of extraction taking place. When mining coal from mountains explosives are normally used and this alters the face of the mountain and abrupts the natural environment as well as change the surrounding landscape. Any nearby streams could easily become contaminated with rock and dirt, this could potentially harm any aquatic life.
There are several emissions that are the result of coal combustion according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration these include:
– Sulfur dioxide (SO2), which contributes to acid rain and respiratory illnesses
– Nitrogen oxides (NOx), which contribute to smog and respiratory illnesses
– Particulates, which contribute to smog, haze, and respiratory illnesses and lung disease
– Carbon dioxide (CO2), which is the primary greenhouse gas produced by the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas)
– Mercury and other heavy metals, which have been linked to both neurological and developmental damage in humans and other animals
– Fly ash and bottom ash, which are residues created when coal is burned at power plants”
It can be agreed that the effects that coal has, in general, are much more severe than that of solar powered panels.
When weighing the costs between the two, it can be argued that solar panels will have some form of impact on its surroundings, but not to the extent of the damage coal production causes.
Energy Produced in the Country
“It’s been estimated that a surface that spans several hundred of thousand kilometres would be needed to power humanity at our present usage levels” (Federico Rosei and Renzo Rosei, 2017).
Even though this sounds like a manageable task it still has its own hurdles.
As mentioned earlier, we still do not have advanced enough technology to contain the energy captured by the sun’s rays so it will cost a lot of money to invent the technology that can do so.
To build panels that are worth sustaining they would be ideally built in deserts but those are far away from civilisation where the demand for the energy would actually be.
Photovoltaic panels are more expensive when producing energy at $81/MWh which would mean higher electricity bills but a study showed that people would be happier with a slight increase in their electricity bill if it meant the energy provided was all renewable (Seeker.com, 2017).
Which state is more solar-friendly?
According to The Climate Reality Project, the state that was most solar-friendly up to 2015 is California.
They had a total solar capacity of 13,241 megawatts (MW) with the potential to provide energy for around 3.32 million homes. California had more solar panel instalments than any other state in 2015.
Coming in second was Arizona with 2,303 Megawatts with the capacity of powering up 327,000 homes and in third place is North Carolina which produced 2,087 MW of energy which could provide power for 223,000 homes, and it is also creating solar jobs for residents in that state – with job growth expected to rise by about 10.2%.
The states that have the lowest use of solar power are the states that have no community solar laws.
A lack of laws in place denies the expansion of solar energy for those that are unable to support solar panels on their property. Some of these states include Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Tennessee.
It is important for all states in the U.S. implements laws to encourage the use of solar energy, especially seeing as some of the aforementioned states receive more sunlight than other states.
For 2018 state solar power rankings, check out this report from Solar Power Rocks.
Produce more and less cost in the future
Currently, for a complete change from limited energy sources to renewable energy, it will cost an exponential amount of money that might not seem viable right now.
The use of resources such as coal has been ingrained in humanity since the creation of the first coal plant by Edison. There have been giant leaps in technology and we are slowly seeing improvements in the way that solar energy is containing energy. In some countries, when excess energy is gained through solar panels, the owner of that energy can sell this energy back to the government for it to be used by others.
For the use of renewable energy to become more widespread this will take major innovation, creativity, and a lot of investment.
The energy that is captured needs to be easily transportable to reach households far and wide. Once these panels have been manufactured and are in use, that is pretty much when all the expenses stop. Maintenance would have to take place every so often, but it takes a lot less to maintain than it does coal plants and other plants for limited resources.
Even the most solar-friendly states can only harness enough solar energy to produce electricity for a certain number of homes so it would require all efforts to become green in the battle of coal vs solar. But as it has already been said, it is a necessary step that will eventually reap its benefits.
As Thomas Edison said, “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.”
When weighing all the pros and cons in the battle of coal vs solar power, they each have their strong points; coal on the one hand already has all the technology it needs to provide electricity around the continent. But, it is also extremely detrimental to the environment and to humanity and it only has a limited amount of years left till it runs out. Solar power, on the other hand, is extremely expensive to get going.
To provide energy to enough households means that there needs to be total focus on making this a source of energy that is viable. But it is also a clean source of energy that only has limited effect on the surrounding environment, it’s clean energy, it will never run out, and once the technology is produced for it then eventually prices will begin to fall.
On its own, solar power cannot sustain the Earth’s demands for energy but when you combine the use of solar power with the likes of all other renewable energy, such as wind power, hydroelectric power and so on, then you have a winning team.
Sooner or later this change must happen, if not for the sake of the environment, then because these limited resources will run out, sooner rather than later.