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Infographic: Solar vs. Coal, a Tale of Two Trains

Solar vs. Coal, a tale of two trains infographic

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Originally inspired by this Quora post. Thanks to Mark Pottorf for his original answer.

Clickable references:

1. Average size and weight of coal trains –
2. Pallet of SolarWorld SW320XL panels –
3. EIA Energy Review for 2016, tables 7.2b and 7.3b – US EIA
4. 1 ton of freight 470 miles on 1 gallon of fuel – CSX
5. ~940 miles per train trip – Association of American Railroads, 2013
6. Assuming 320W STC per panel, 4 hours peak sun per day, 20% loss from wiring/inversion, 365 days per year
7. Assuming 14,400 tons of coal per train, 1 kWh per pound (see reference #3).
8. LCA of Photovoltaics – National Renewable Energy Laboratory
9. 4,350 tons per acre, when the coal is 30 inches thick – Kentucy Coal Education
10. 980 g CO2-eq/kWh – Journal of Industrial Ecology, 2012
11. Environmental impacts of coal power – Union of Concerned Scientists
12. 13,000 kWh/person/year, World Bank dataset

Last modified: January 15, 2019

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How much energy was used in the production of the solar panels? Everything from mining the copper and melting the glass to the shipping packages and strapping. Please include also the energy required to make and ship the panel mounts. thank you


You know Ben I’m a RE design engineer and I believe RE is very useful but it is not economical in all situations. You are throwing in lots of expenses on the coal side that don’t exist. I don’t see you throwing in the cost of building a module factory on the solar side. Let’s face it; fossil fuel is still more economical than solar in many situations but not all. Trying to utilize it where it doesn’t make financial sense only serves to give it a bad rap. I have seen folks with self serving financial interests misapply solar… Read more »


I would argue with your inflation rate on coal. And You don’t need to build a coal plant as they are already built. Inflating the numbers doesn’t make your argument valid


Don’t forget about the staff to run the coal plant for 30 years. Sherco is about 20 times larger, but requires 800 employees to operate.


How many early deaths does solar cause each year? According to MIT, coal and other fossil fuels cause 200,000 in the US alone Here is the study:

Rich DION, PhD

this is a pathetic example of using meaningless data to try and convince someone thru guilt — and I am an individual who is already off the grid using solar panels


Well at $0.55 per watt on the solar panels (not counting the other equipment and installation) you have (276,000 x 320) x 0.55= $48.6 million dollars. With the cost of the coal being around $90 per ton you’ve got 14,400 x $80 or $1.3 million. So you get 37 years of coal for the price of just the modules. Add the BOS and it’s even more cost for the modules


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