Fossil Fuels vs Renewable Energy

Can Renewable Energy Compete with Fossil Fuels?


fossil fuels - drilling for oil on a beachThere’s a lot of talk about fossil fuels (oil, coal, natural gas) and whether they should be replaced by renewable energy – energy that won’t run out, for example solar or wind power.

Often, renewable energy is viewed as being favoured only by ‘greenies’, and it is frequently considered to be more expensive and less efficient than energy from fossil fuels.

Let’s look at some of the criticisms of renewable energy.


Solar power and wind energy do not generate as much electricity per dollar spent as electricity from coal.

No argument.

But they have a different cost structure to electricity from coal.

Coal is mined (or collected, for example by lopping the tops of mountains), without huge concern about cleaning up afterwards, unless it’s mandatory.   Then it’s used to generate electricity, and the waste products are dumped into the air for free, imposing the costs on others, including the health costs of people living close by.   (That’s quite a subsidy!).

Renewable energy doesn’t have this benefit (thank goodness!).

Also, oil originally wasn’t efficient when it was first used.  Only (subsidized) research and development, and investment, helped it to become what it is today.

It’s easy to forget that oil had a very rocky start.  It was viewed with great scepticism and suspicion, and people said it couldn’t compete with coal.

It feels as though history is repeating itself with the arguments against renewable energy!


The obvious disadvantage of renewable energy is cost.  Solar panels on my roof, for example, will take a few years before the money is recouped.  However, as the cost of fossil fuel electricity continues to rise around the world, this pay-back time gets shorter.   And once the panels are paid for, then your electricity is free for as long as the panels last!

Renewable energy receives subsidies.  It is well known that fossil fuels receive considerably more money in direct subsidies, tax breaks and other concessions than renewable energy.

This also makes it more difficult for renewables to compete.

To put it very simplistically

  • If something costs $100, and it is subsidized $10, then its cost is $90.
  • If something costs $100, and it is subsidized $60, then its cost only is $40.

The more heavily subsidized product seems cheaper.


Oil is found around the world and is transported to where it is used, without significant loss of potency (well, unless there’s an oil spill).

It’s not possible to generate solar and wind power everywhere.  You need sunlight and you need the wind to blow.  Also, transporting the power to where it is used, often involves loss of petency.  This is currently an issue with renewable energy.

Reliability / Continuity

Currently it is sometimes difficult to rely on solar and wind power 24 hours a day.  If the sun doesn’t shine, or the wind doesn’t blow, no electricity is generated.  Future technology will improve storage options, but currently this is a disadvantage.

The Problems with Fossil Fuels

  • Power plants emit huge quantities of pollutants into the air.  Drilling for oil and transporting it carries the risk of oil spills.   Renewable energy is much cleaner.
  • The cost of fossil fuel pollution-caused health care is huge – it’s a cost we shouldn’t be paying.
  • We won’t run out of sunlight (well, not for a few billion years, anyway), nor will we use all the wind.  We will run out of oil and coal and natural gas.  Already oil is more expensive to extract, because the sources of oil that were easy to extract are mostly finished.  New developments such as shale (fracking) have serious health implications as well as causing massive damage environmentally.  So although shale would extend the lifespan of fossil fuels, I don’t believe it’s worth the risk – not while we still have the option of gradually changing to greener, healthier energy sources.
  • Countries can be – and are – held to ransom by oil producers.  Sunlight and wind are free.
  • Countries want to protect supplies of oil.  This is a massive military cost, paid for by the taxpayers (you and me).

The current dependence on oil means “cheap oil – at any cost”.

Oil and other fossil fuels may seem cheaper and better at first than renewable energy, but when you look at all the hidden costs, and the costs to our own heath and the environment, it’s not as clear cut as it seems.

And supposedly ‘cheap’ oil won’t be much help to us if we continue to damage our own health, and the health of the planet with it.

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  • Will says:

    Solar powered houses etc are definitely the way to go and some countries poorer people do get subsidies for the installation of at least water heating facilities. Also, if you can generate enough of your own you can sell it back to the grid. Some countries in Northern Europe practice this extensively and this of course offsets the capital cost of an installation. Fossil fuels are running out but it seems that some countries just don’t get the point or don’t care. Another good blog Clare.