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Should we depend on fossil fuels or renewable energy?

By Rachel Segal
 Getty / Christopher Furlong
*Updated 2023
With more focus on the environment, especially following extreme weather events such as historic snowstorms in Texas or unprecedented tropical storms in California, not to mention the UN’s cautionary warnings about global warming, the battle between fossil fuels (oil, natural gas and coal) and renewable energy (specifically solar and wind energy for this article) is increasingly relevant. Should the global economy continue depending on fossil fuels or should renewable energy replace them?
Here are three arguments in support of fossil fuels and three in support of renewable energy.


Why We Should Depend on Fossil Fuels


High energy density

Fossil fuels are the world’s dominant energy source mainly because of their high energy density. Energy density is the amount of energy stored in something. When it comes to fossil fuels, oil – or more precisely, its fuel derivative, gasoline – has a very high energy density, especially compared to solar energy. This makes gasoline more efficient.

For example, a mere gallon of gas contains enough energy to charge an iPhone every day for almost 20 years. In comparison, the energy density in solar power is so low that even if you get enough solar power to charge your phone, it’ll most likely need to be recharged the very next day.


More economical: cheaper and safer to store and transport

Fossil fuels are considered some of the planet’s cheapest fuel sources. Sure, the process of extraction and refinement is expensive, but the return on investment more than makes up for it. Plus, today’s innovative technologies may now be able to use fossil fuels in ways that don’t pollute.

Also, the constant state of fossil fuels’ molecular composition means they don’t form other compounds when stored in canisters for long periods. This makes them easy to store and safe to transport over long distances, either on trucks or pumped through pipes above and below ground. The same cannot be said about handling or transporting nuclear energy, whose risks outweigh its extremely high levels of energy density.


Source availability and reliability

Oil, natural gas and coal are reliable sources of energy because they are abundant and easily available. In fact, fossil fuels can be found in almost every country and will not be depleted any time soon. Plus, with the speed at which technology is constantly developing, fossil fuel extraction and refinery procedures have improved, making their availability even greater.

This reliability includes generating electricity, transporting fuels, and making byproducts, like plastics, cosmetics, and even medicine, for the world population’s energy needs. Fossil fuels also provide more reliable sources of electricity than solar and wind energy since they are not dependent on climactic conditions.


Why We Should Depend on Renewable Energy


Endless potential for technology and job creation

Unlike oil, natural gas and coal, solar and wind energy are technologies – not fuel. This means they are not restricted by eventual depletion or an innovation cap. As research continues and technologies improve, there will be even more advances in renewable energy – and at lower costs.

And with technological growth comes job creation, not only in the US but also worldwide. While fossil fuel technologies are mostly mechanized, the renewable energy industry is more about labor. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, jobs in the solar and wind power sectors have grown at about 20% annually in recent years. And this is just the beginning.


Stable Energy Prices

Renewable energy sources can be continually replenished through natural processes, unlike fossil fuels. This can, perhaps, limit the potential for political conflicts, wars and, especially, price volatility. Renewable energy is already providing affordable electricity across the United States. The trend is soaring as costs to generate electricity from solar and wind power are steadily declining. In fact, in 2019, US renewable energy consumption surpassed coal for the first time in over 130 years.

While renewable energy facilities are costly to build, once built, operations are low-cost, especially as the fuel is free for most renewable technologies. This leads to relatively stable renewable energy prices over time. In contrast, fossil fuel prices are vulnerable to dramatic price swings. Increasing our reliance on renewable energy can also help protect consumers when fossil fuel prices jump.


No harmful impact on environment or health 

The most obvious advantage of renewable energy is its environmental impact, or lack thereof. Solar and wind energy, among other renewable energies, are non-pollutants, producing little to no global warming emissions. In contrast, fossil fuels overload our atmosphere with carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. These all trap heat, which steadily increases Earth’s temperature and creates disastrous impacts on our environment and climate.

Health-wise, the air and water pollution (even in our drinking water) emitted by coal and natural gas plants is linked to breathing problems, neurological damage, heart attacks, and cancer. Also, unlike fossil fuels, wind and solar energy don’t need water to operate and therefore don’t erode or pollute our water resources and ground.


The Bottom Line: The availability and high energy density of fossil fuels make them a more economical resource to depend on for energy. However, they significantly contribute to global warming whereas renewable energy is a non-pollutant with limitless technological potential and output. Should America continue relying on fossil fuels or switch entirely to renewable energy?


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