Renewable energy, fossil fuels, and nuclear energy all fall under their own category when it comes to energy supply and consumption.
This is a comparison guide that aims to outline how each compares across various factors and aspects.
Summary – Renewables vs Fossil Fuels vs Nuclear Comparison
- Renewables tend to include solar, wind, water (hydroelectric, wave, tidal), and geothermal energy.
- Fossil fuels tend to include coal, natural gas and oil
- Alternative forms of energy might include nuclear, biomass and hydrogen
The comparison information below is of a general nature only. Obviously, each individual energy setup in each city in the world is going to have different factors that impact it’s individual set of features, and pros and cons.
How technology and social, economic, environmental and other factors develop in the future will have an impact too.
Cost is generally what is costs to build, operate and maintain, handle waste for, and decommission an energy source.
It can be expressed as cost to produce a unit of power e.g. cost to produce 1 Megawatt of electricity from the energy source (when taking into account lifecycle costs).
It can be very difficult to get a definite number on because of different variables in different countries and states/provinces.
A few numbers and estimates on cost are:
The true cost of electricity is difficult to pin down. That’s because a number of inputs comprise it: the cost of fuel itself, the cost of production, as well as the cost of dealing with the damage that fuel does to the environment.
But, an estimate on the cost to produce 1 MWh of electricity from different energy sources is:
- Natural Gas – $66/MWh
- Hydro – $86
- Coal – $95
- Wind – $97
- Geothermal – $102
- Biomass – $113
- Nuclear – $114
- Petroleum – $125
- Solar PV – $211
- The levelized cost of energy (LCOE) is a measure of a power source that allows comparison of different methods of electricity generation on a consistent basis. It is an economic assessment of the average total cost to build and operate a power-generating asset over its lifetime divided by the total energy output of the asset over that lifetime. The LCOE can also be regarded as the average minimum price at which electricity must be sold in order to break-even over the lifetime of the project.
- There can be different internal costs for energy sources such as capital costs, fuel costs, and costs of waste and insurances.
Capital costs of different energy sources expressed as overnight cost per watt:
- gas/oil combined cycle power plant – $1000/kW
- wind – $1600/kW
- offshore wind – $6500/kW
- solar PV (fixed) – $1800/kW
- solar PV (tracking)- $2000/kW
- battery storage – $2000/kW
- geothermal – $2800/kW
- coal (with S02 and NOx controls)- $3500-3800/kW
- advanced nuclear – $6000/kW
- fuel cells – $7200/kW
- Levelized cost of electricity differs by country
- As two examples, wind and solar PV are two of the cheaper LCOE energy sources in the UK and US
- You can view the full set of estimates at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cost_of_electricity_by_source
- Around 75% of coal production is [now] more expensive than renewables, with [a prediction for the coal] industry [to be] out-competed on cost by 2025
- Fossil fuel generation today costs between $0.05 – $0.17 per kilowatt hour in G20 countries, including the U.S., the U.K., Russia, Japan, India, and Germany. By 2020, however, renewables are expected to cost $0.03 – $0.10 per kilowatt hour, with the price of onshore wind power and solar photovoltaic (PV) projects expected to be as low as $0.03 per kilowatt hour by 2019.
- Presently, offshore wind projects and solar thermal energy can still be quite costly, but they too are expected to drop in price between 2020 and 2022 — to $0.06 – $0.10 per kilowatt hour
- [the costs we see per mega watt hour when comparing coal to renewables that show coal as cheaper is usually the cost for old conventional polluting coal plants. New coal plants are usually built with modern technology and anti pollution devices and systems]
- In 2017 [in Australia], the marginal cost of generating power from an existing coal station [old coal stations] is less than $40/MWh, while wind power is $60-70/MWh.
- … new supercritical coal power [comes in] at around $75/MWh
- [in the future] the weighted average cost of capital for coal is projected to be 14.9%, compared to 7.1% for renewables
- Another set of data on LCOE…
- Onshore wind has the lowest average levelized cost in this analysis at $59 per megawatt-hour, and utility-scale photovoltaic plants weren’t far behind at $79
- By comparison, the lowest cost conventional technologies were gas combined cycle technologies, averaging $74 per megawatt-hour, and coal plants, averaging $109
- Looking across the 16 technology types, the 10 alternative technologies cost an average $147 per megawatt-hour, $18 less than the conventional approaches
*Research and development of an energy source and associated technology can be difficult to factor into cost, but can be a significant cost. For example, renewable energy has needed a lot of
*Profitability of each energy source is generally important to consider too, and it impacts how much investment and support a particular energy source might be able to attract.
* Note that costs can come down for an energy source over time with more investment, more consumer demand (and economies of scale), and so on.
* Energy sources like coal plants and other high polluting or high emitting energy sources are starting to become more expensive as pollutant control systems are required and pollution taxes and penalties are applied.
Wholesale Price Of Electricity (For Consumers)
Wholesale price of electricity is price for the end consumer of the electricity, as opposed to the cost to supply the energy source/to produce a unit of electricity (when considering all ths supply costs).
Like cost, it can be difficult to assign a definite number to wholesale price because of different variables, and because costs can differ altogether, but also relatively (to other energy sources), in different countries and states/provinces.
- [prices for electricity can be dependent on many factors]
- [inefficient old gas plants can contribute to high electricity prices – like they currently do in South Australia]
- [excess power produced by wind and solar can bring renewable electricity prices down because the ongoing cost to run and maintain these energy sources is close to zero]
- In South Australia, from 2013 to 2018, wind and solar generation … brought wholesale prices down
- … in the 2017–18 financial year, renewables reduced wholesale prices by an average of about 30 per cent, or about $37 per megawatt hour
- … subsidies paid for [wind and solar] … was $11 per megawatt hour of electricity produced
- [Nuclear can cost far less in places like Korea, in China and the UAE, compared to countries in the West where the cost can be twice as much … and these costs can be reflected in end consumer electricity prices or an unwillingness to have nuclear as a part of a country or states’ energy mix at all]
- [This is due to factors like design, construction management and supply chain and workforce]
- [Nuclear electricity is currently priced out of the Australian electricity market because of the cost of nuclear energy]
* Note – although renewables can supply cheap electricity, they often need fossil fuel sources to supply energy when there is not enough sun or wind. So, this needs to be taken into account when assessing cost of renewables vs fossil fuels for whole sale electricity prices.
Subsidies are country and state/province based.
It depends on the policy and goals of the governments in a particular region.
Some governments have large subsidies on renewable energy with a push to meet green energy and climate change targets by 2020, 2030 and 2050.
Some governments still have subsidies on coal power and other fossil fuels with an eye on economic growth and the strength of local economy.
Some governments have carbon and air contaminant penalties on energy – coal plants and other high pollution and emitting energy sources tend to be more expensive in this scenario if they are high emitters. Some have carbon credits i.e. high emitters have to buy these credits (to fund carbon sinks) for their emissions.
Energy efficiency might be defined as the % of energy input retained when converting fuel to electricity. An estimate of energy efficiency of the different energy sources might be:
- Coal – 29% (least efficient, and retains just 29% of its original energy)
- Oil – 31%
- Natural Gas – 38%
- Biomass – 52%
- Solar – 207%
- Nuclear – 290%
- Hydro – 317%
- Geothermal – 514%
- Wind – 1164% (most efficient, and creates 1164% of its original energy inputs when converted into electricity)
Vox.com also has this to note about renewables vs fossil fuel for efficiency:
- … fossil fuel combustion is wasteful. Mining or drilling fossil fuels, transporting them, refining them, burning them, converting them to useful energy, using the energy, disposing of the waste and pollution — at every single stage of that process, there is loss. Burning fossil fuels, for electricity, heat, or transportation, inherently involves enormous levels of waste.
- Renewable electricity, … is simpler. It involves no combustion and fewer conversions generally. Electric motors are simpler than combustion engines, with fewer moving parts, substantially lower maintenance costs, and much higher efficiency. Electrified heating and transportation sectors can be integrated into electricity grid operations, creating system efficiencies.
Variability refers to how much an energy supply fluctuates with the power it delivers.
- Fossil fuels and nuclear are not variable power sources – they are consistent
- Some renewables like solar and wind are variable because the wind isn’t always blowing, and the sun isn’t always strong or out at all (the exception to this is the use of batteries to store energy if renewable energy equipment isn’t connected into the power grid)
- Some renewables like geothermal and hydroelectricity are relatively controllable and constant
Refers to the amount of power per unit volume.
- Fossil fuels and nuclear tend to have have good power density
- Renewables tend to have lesser power density
- power density is … the average electrical power produced in one horizontal square metre of infrastructure.
- Because of power density, renewables can take up up to 1000 times more space than fossil fuels
- Biomass, hydro and wind … take up the most space. Natural gas and nuclear take least
- … while renewable energies take up more space, that space will be less polluted, and can be developed for multiple uses such as farming around the base of wind turbines
Energy Independence & Reliance
Energy independence refers to whether an energy source gives the energy consumer complete control over that energy source, or whether it makes them reliant on another state or country for that energy.
This is entirely country or state specific.
An example of energy independence is a country mining and using their own coal. Another example is a country using their own sunlight, wind or water (via a dam or large river) for solar, wind and hydroelectric energy.
Natural gas imported from Russia to China is an example of China being dependent on Russia for their natural gas supply. Another similar example is natural gas imported from Norway to the UK (which makes the UK dependent).
Ideally, a country or state diversifies their energy portfolio both by domestic vs foreign supply, and by energy source.
Availability refers to whether the energy is available in a particular area, either domestically, or by being imported.
- Fossil fuels and uranium are generally available to be mined and used everywhere, as natural gas, coal, oil and uranium can be mined domestically, or mined externally and imported
- All renewable energy is not available domestically everywhere. For example, some regions in the world simply don’t have access to geothermal natural resources, hydroelectric natural resources, or may not have very much sunlight or wind as part of their natural climate
- Renewables can be imported between states or countries still though – but this can be expensive as it requires the investment in new infrastructure like power transmission lines and interconnectors
Availability may also consider how economically feasible it is to mine or capture energy.
For example, new fossil fuel resources (shale gas) have been discovered in China recently, but are incredibly deep under the ground to a point where they are difficult and expensive to get to with current mining equipment.
Scarcity refers to how much of an energy resource has been tested for, and exists.
Fossil fuels are finite – there is only a certain amount left that can be mined with current equipment.
Uranium is finite at this stage, but advancements in science and certain technologies regarding how nuclear reactors work and our ability to obtain uranium from the ocean may push uranium supplies into hundreds and thousands of years of supply in the long term (this is still a big ‘if’ at this stage).
- How Much Fossil Fuels Are Left, & When Will We Run Out?
- How Much Uranium Is Left, & When Will We Run Out?
Comparatively, renewables like solar and wind energy are are an almost infinite resource. The sun is expected to last billions more years.
Safety & Danger Level To Humans
Different energy sources can cause health issues and even death via air pollution.
Greenhouse gases, and power plants accidents also have an impact on human safety in the short and long term.
- Fossil fuels tend to be the most harmful energy sources to humans, whilst renewables and nuclear tend to be the most safe
Environmental & Wildlife Impact
Environmental impact from energy sources can result from mining/extraction of the resource, refinement and processing, operation, and waste.
Environmental damage from operation mainly involves involve air pollution via air contaminants, greenhouse gas emissions which impact climate change and global warming. Fossil fuels, coal especially, tends to be the dirtiest fuel in terms of air pollution, and also in terms of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide.
Mining has it’s own set of potential environmental problems such as air pollution, water pollution, land degradation, and harm to ecosystems and wildlife. Mining is mainly done for fossil fuels and uranium.
Coal produces coal ash which contain heavy metals, and in Australia, makes up up to one fifth of the total waste stream. In some places, this waste is commercialised and re-used, but it can be costly. Nuclear obviously produces radioactive waste that needs it’s own specialised treatment and management.
Renewables tend to be the cleanest energy sources environmentally throughout their entire lifecycle, but they are not 100% eco friendly (they still have some issues).
Water footprint of each energy source has to be considered – fossil fuels, especially coal and oil tend to use a lot of water in mining, refinement (for oil), and for cooling at power plants.
- Impact Of Energy & Electricity Production On The Environment
- Impact Of Energy & Electricity On Animals & Wildlife
- Carbon Footprint Of Each Energy Source
- Water Footprint Of Each Energy Source
Economic Impact & Benefits
Renewable energy competes with and even exceeds fossil fuel energy across many economic indicators and measures.
As one example, renewable energy tends to produce more jobs per dollar invested, and more jobs per unit of electricity produced.
You can read more in these guides:
- The Economic Impact & Benefits Of Renewable & Clean Energy
- How Many Jobs Renewable & Clean Energy Creates?
- Does Renewable & Clean Energy Create More Jobs Than Fossil Fuels?
Pros & Cons
Guides on pros and cons of various energy sources can be found here:
Debate … Which Energy Source Is Best … Renewables, Fossil Fuels, Or Nuclear?
It’s a country and city specific answer as to which energy source is best.
Fossil fuels have built and powered out economies, and electricity, transport, commercial/industrial, and heating and cooling sectors up until now.
Nuclear is prominent in some cities and not so much others because of it’s various pros and cons.
Renewables are emerging in many countries and cities, but still have their issues in several areas.
Fossil fuels are responsible for a lot of environmental damage and are seen as the main factor in the global warming trend. But, they tend to be cheap, accessible and reliable as a power source.
Fossil fuels will likely be a bridge, along with nuclear, in the short and medium term for a long term build into economies and societies powered with cleaner and renewable energy sources.
There are many factors and variables, both now and in the future, that will determine the individual energy mix of any city or country at any point in time (social, environmental, economic, and logistical/practical).
Further Resources on Renewable Energy, Fossil Fuels, & Nuclear Energy