Will Solar Power Replace Fossil Fuels?

Ever since clean and renewable forms of energy like solar power became viable options, people have posited that they could one day replace fossil fuels altogether. However, despite significant technological advancements in the field and rapid growth in the solar power sector, this has yet to take place. That isn't to say that it never will, though.

Several energy organizations and government bodies around the world have crunched the numbers and found that the future is bright for solar power. But while these groups do believe that solar power could potentially replace fossil fuels someday, they also acknowledge that there are issues standing in the way.

Solar Power Projections

The U.S. Department of Energy continuously conducts analyses on the viability of solar energy and has found a great deal of potential in widespread implementation across the country. From 2008 to today, the U.S. has gone from producing only 0.34 gigawatts (GW) of electricity via solar power to 97.2 GW. This is enough electricity to power 18 million American homes but only accounts for 3% of the country's total energy production.

The Department of Energy has also noted that solar power is becoming increasingly affordable over time. In fact, solar power is now the cheapest form of electricity available. The cost of solar panels has decreased by almost 70% since 2014, and the cost of concentrated solar power plants has dropped more than 50% since 2010. This increases the likelihood that solar power could one day replace fossil fuels.

Estimates show that installing solar panels across 22,000 square miles of land could produce enough energy to power the entire country.

On a global scale, a report from the U.K.-based organization Carbon Tracker claims that a combination of solar and wind energy could produce enough electricity to meet the energy demands of the entire world by the mid-2030s. They estimate that it would require solar panels and wind turbines installed on only 0.3% of the planet's total landmass to accomplish this. Carbon Tracker believes that this is a real possibility if the solar and wind industries can continue to grow by at least 15 to 20% each year, which they have for many years in a row up to this point. If this all becomes a reality, fossil fuels could be entirely phased out by 2050.

Obstacles to Full Solar Power Transition

While projections and estimates paint a nice picture of the solar power possibilities, there are real-world issues that need to be addressed.

One of the biggest obstacles standing in the way of widespread solar power adoption is the power grid infrastructure. In order to make a complete switch to solar power, the current grid system would need to be retrofitted to allow for the massive intake of renewable energy. This would be an expensive endeavor and the more than 3,000 different investor- and public-owned electricity providers that rely on the system are hesitant to make the change.

Another thing standing in the way of more people turning to solar power is the initial investment. While utility bills will be drastically reduced or even eliminated, the up-front cost of installing a solar power setup is still a lot to swallow for some people. Currently, the average residential solar power system costs between $15,000 and $25,000 to install. However, government tax incentives and other programs can help mitigate these expenditures.

There's also the solar power storage issue to consider. While fossil fuels such as gas and coal can be stored relatively easily in their natural state until they're converted into usable energy, this isn't the case with solar power. Solar energy is captured and immediately converted into usable electricity. Without proper storage solutions, much of this electricity goes to waste. The technology for solar power storage batteries exists and is currently used, but mass-producing battery storage for global use will require quite a bit of time and money.

Still, none of these challenges are insurmountable. It's completely possible to solve each one of these problems, and a future where solar power replaces fossil fuels is far from impossible.