For most of the world, fossil fuels remain the primary energy source. More and more, however, renewable technologies like solar energy are rivaling the potential of traditional fossil fuels. In this article, we’ll discuss some of the disadvantages of fossil fuels and why the future of energy likely won’t rely on these energy sources.
Fossil fuels have been used for centuries to generate power, but there are many disadvantages associated with their use:
Fossil fuels pollute the environment.
Fossil fuels are non-renewable and unsustainable.
Drilling for fossil fuels is a dangerous process.
The term “fossil fuel” refers to a natural fuel source formed in the geological past from the remains of living organisms. Fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas come from the remains of ancient plants and animals that were buried for millions of years.
The conditions that the remains were under over time (such as pressure and temperature) play a part in the fossil fuel they became. For example, coal is primarily formed from the remains of land plants that have been compressed and heated.
Humans access fossil fuels today by drilling and mining into the earth to extract them from rocks and geologic formations.
Although we have relied on fossil fuels to power our society for a long time, there are several disadvantages to using these outdated energy sources.
1. Fossil fuels pollute
If you have ever driven by a factory or power plant and seen smoke from the top, you’re seeing fossil fuel pollution first-hand. Fossil fuels need to be burned to release the energy stored in them, which leads to smoke and gases being pumped into the air. Unfortunately, burning fossil fuels releases harmful particles and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, adversely affecting humans and the Earth.
Burning coal, for example, releases toxic particles like sulfur dioxide and heavy metals into the atmosphere. These compounds lead to serious side effects, such as acid rain and human respiratory damage. Several scientific studies link pollutants from burning fossil fuels to diseases like cancer and asthma.
The particles released from burning fossil fuels also have negative effects on our planet as a whole. You’ve probably heard that fossil fuels contribute to climate change, and that contribution comes directly from the particles that are put into the atmosphere when they are burned. Compounds like carbon dioxide and methane enter our atmosphere and trap heat from the sun, leading to a continuous rise in average global temperatures since the early 1900s. Rising temperatures can lead to everything from natural habitat destruction to sea level rise.
2. Fossil fuels are a nonrenewable resource
Even if fossil fuels didn’t pollute and contribute to global warming, we wouldn’t be able to rely on them forever. This is because fossil fuels are nonrenewable, meaning they don’t naturally replenish fast enough for humans to use forever. Fossil fuels take millions of years to form deep in the earth, and we can’t just sit around and wait for new coal to form. We will run out of fossil fuels at our current usage rate if we don’t turn to other energy sources.
Even if there is enough coal and natural gas within the earth to keep using for many years, accessing those natural stores will only become more difficult and expensive. Moreover, new extraction methods for hard-to-reach fossil fuels can cause harmful environmental effects. For example, a modern way of getting natural gas out of rocks is hydrofracking, which involves pumping a chemical solution into the earth to push the gas out. This process leaves dangerous pollutants in the earth, which can enter our water supply and cause human health issues.
3. Fossil fuels are unsafe, and accidents happen
As mentioned earlier, fossil fuels need to be burned to generate energy. That typically happens in the controlled environment of a power plant, but sometimes accidents happen, and they’re usually catastrophic. Oil drilling rigs are susceptible to catastrophic failure, like when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in 2010, leading to several deaths and the largest oil spill in U.S. history. Accidents like these are unique to fossil fuel operations due to the flammable nature of the fuel.
4. Fossil fuel production creates harmful byproducts
In addition to the use of fossil fuels themselves, producing this type of fuel has harmful effects on surrounding areas and populations. Acid rain is created when nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide mix with naturally available water and oxygen. This process commonly occurs as a result of fossil fuel-generating power plants expelling pollutants. Other toxic pollutants, like mercury, are emitted during fossil fuel production. 13 to 26 percent of the total airborne mercury emissions in the United States come from coal production.
5. Fossil fuel prices fluctuate greatly
Fossil fuel prices fluctuate due to social, political, and economic factors. This is especially true in the US and developing countries that rely more on fossil fuels. Market manipulation from oil-producing companies in the middle east and domestically cost everyday people hundreds of dollars, and often the price of oil on the market does not reflect its actual worth.
When comparing fossil fuels and solar energy, it is clear that fossil fuels can’t be our sole energy source in the future — renewable technologies like solar offer more advantages, from reliability to lower costs to smaller environmental impact. As society continues to move towards more sustainable energy sources, we expect to see solar energy continue to grow.
Individual homeowners can use solar energy today and avoid rising electricity costs and the various drawbacks of fossil fuels by exploring a home solar energy system. The best way to solicit and compare competitive quotes for a solar installation is on the EnergySage Solar Marketplace, where qualified, pre-vetted installers can submit bids to install solar on your roof for you to compare side by side.