The Efficiency of Natural Gas and Solar Energy
The debate of what energy source we should use to power our planet has been going on for years, and will likely continue for years to come. It’s because energy is crucial for the foundation of our society.
For two decades, natural gas has been one of the primary energy sources running most of these societies, but in the last couple of years, we have seen an explosion in the research and advancement of renewable energy and solar energy in particular. With the realities of climate change battering our planet, solar energy has exploded as a green, clean energy source that many have adopted.
There is a lot of information (and misinformation) in the media regarding solar energy and natural gas, leaving many understandably confused about the topic. What are the differences between solar energy and natural gas, and how do the two compare? Is solar energy really more efficient and less expensive than natural gas?
Overall Electricity Production
Since the 1990s, natural gas has been responsible for over 90% of all new energy production within the United States. For many, natural gas is seen as a cleaner alternative to other types of fossil fuels, and the United States has been at the forefront of adopting natural gas for its energy production. In 2012, natural gas was responsible for 30% of the electricity produced in the United States, and that number is only expected to grow.
While the adoption of solar energy is a rather new concept within the US, electricity produced by solar power has grown over the last five years. Between 2013 and 2014, electricity created by utility-scale solar power plants grew over 100%. This increase helped power an additional 1,513,703 homes during this period. During the same time period, 200,000 businesses and homes installed solar power. In 2014, 32% of all new electricity generated was powered by solar energy.
Where the Energy Comes From
The energy produced by natural gas is created by the natural gas itself. Natural gas is pulled from natural reserves found deep within the earth. Once the gas has been pulled from the earth, it is processed at a plant to remove any impurities that may naturally occur within the gas. When the impurities have been removed, the gas is moved, usually by pipeline, to a power plant where it is then converted into energy. Most forms of natural gas are not renewable. Once the planet’s natural reserves have been used up, natural gas will cease to exist in its current form.
Solar energy comes from the Sun. Our Sun is like a blazing battery in space that throws a constant stream of energy at Earth each and every day. This energy can be collected and converted into electricity for us to use. Solar energy is clean and will be available to us for the entirety of the Sun’s lifespan.
How Energy Is Produced
There are several different ways natural gas is converted into energy for us to use. A steam turbine is one common way natural gas is turned into energy in a process where natural gas is burned to heat water, creating steam that turns the turbine, creating energy. A combustion turbine is another common method of turning natural gas into energy and requires the burning of natural gas within the combustion turbine itself, a process that results in the energy we use in our homes each and every day. These two methods can be combined into something called a combined cycle where natural gas is burned within a combustion turbine, creating both energy and steam. The steam then powers a steam turbine. This process is more efficient than using a steam turbine or combustion turbine by themselves.
There are two main ways energy from the Sun is converted into energy we can use. The main type of solar generation used in the United States utilizes photovoltaic technology that creates electricity through wafers made of silicon or other materials that are conductive. When the Sun’s energy hits these wafers, a chemical reaction is produced, and this chemical reaction releases electricity that can be used in homes and businesses.
Overall Energy Costs
The price of natural gas has steadily increased since 2012. This increase is caused by several different factors, and it is likely that the cost of natural gas will continue to increase for the foreseeable future. The main catalyst for these price increases is demand and limitations on supply. As the use of dirtier fossil fuels to create energy is scaled back, reliance on natural gas increases and this increased demand for natural gas increases the cost of the gas itself. Other factors causing an increase in cost include inflation and production costs.
The cost of solar energy is on the opposite trajectory. Currently, the price of solar energy is at an all-time low, and the cost is projected to fall over the coming years. Since 2012, the price of solar panels has dropped by 60%. This price drop is mostly a result of maturing technology and subsidies created by governments all across the world. Solar technology has not reached its peak, and as technology becomes more efficient, the cost of powering a home or business by using the technology will fall as a result.
The Efficiency of Natural Gas and Solar Power
The switch from fossil fuels to natural gas for energy production was thought to be a temporary bridge that would eventually lead to full reliance on renewable resources, such as solar power, to give our planet its energy. At the time, renewable resources had only been used on a small scale, and it was thought that it would take several years for the technology to mature and become more efficient, but as countries began to work on the technology, it became clear that renewable energy would evolve much quicker than originally thought.
While some limitations on solar energy still remain, it has become much more efficient, and any home or business can easily use solar energy to provide the power they need. Solar panel efficiency is expressed in a percentage that represents its ability to convert sunlight into energy. If there are two solar panels installed in the same place and receiving the same amount of sunlight, the solar panel with a higher efficiency rating will produce more electricity.
When it comes to comparing the efficiency of solar power to natural gas, it’s important to understand that there is not a single factor to consider. Each solar panel brand and model has a different efficiency rating, and it is almost impossible to compare the efficiency of solar power to the efficiency of natural gas. Most solar panels have an efficiency rating between 15% and 20%, with a few outliers on either end of the range.
Meanwhile, natural gas is the most efficient non-renewable resource for power generation. Modern power plants are able to use up to 80% of the energy content in natural gas. These percentages may make it appear as though natural gas is more efficient than solar energy, and in some ways it is, but there are other things to take into account when it comes to energy production. For instance, natural gas is not a renewable resource, while solar power endlessly bombards solar panels with energy, meaning there is a never-ending pool of energy to draw from when converting solar energy into electricity.
While natural gas is the more convenient option at the moment, it is not sustainable, and it takes a toll on the environment. Currently, solar energy is the most viable option for renewable energy and has become easily accessible to the masses in the last decade or two. The cost of solar has gone down, and the efficiency levels have risen, and it seems the solar industry is set to continue on this trajectory.
If you want to contribute to a greener society, and a household free of fossil fuels, contact the solar experts at Energy Concepts today.