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

Avatar for Ben Zientara
Published on 10/04/2017 in
Updated 01/15/2019
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

12 thoughts on “Infographic: Solar vs. Coal, a Tale of Two Trains

  1. Avatar for David David says:

    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

    1. Avatar for Ben Zientara Ben Zientara says:

      Hey David-

      The energy to make and ship the panels is accounted for in the estimated 140,000 tons of carbon pollution mentioned near the bottom of the infographic. That number accounts for emissions for all life-cycle inputs into the production, installation, operation, and recycling of the panels.

    2. Avatar for Josh Josh says:

      If we are adding in that energy usage, we should also add in energy and materials your power company uses to build and maintain the gird infrastructure. Without it all the energy produced from coal would never make it to your home.

  2. Avatar for Barry Barry says:

    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 and leave angry end users behind which has helped to degrade the industry. Articles like this are misleading and inaccurate. The truth is better as honesty is always the best policy.

    1. Avatar for Ben Zientara Ben Zientara says:

      It may be true that natural gas plants will continue to be economical and desirable in the very short term, especially as peakers (at least until energy storage takes over that job in 5-10 years), but there will probably never be another large coal-fired power plant built in the United States. Check this out:

  3. Avatar for Barry Barry says:

    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

  4. Avatar for Kikngas Kikngas says:

    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.

  5. Avatar for Tab Tab says:

    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:

  6. Avatar for Rich DION, PhD Rich DION, PhD says:

    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

    1. Avatar for Ben Zientara Ben Zientara says:

      How is the data meaningless? This kind of calculation (and the calcs for costs I did in an earlier comment) are exactly why solar power and other renewables are by far the largest part of new generation. In 2016, new solar generation accounted for more total capacity than the net of new coal generation and coal plant retirements. (source:

      That’s a trend that’s not going to stop.

      No guilt, all facts.

  7. Avatar for Barry Barry says:

    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

    1. Avatar for Ben Zientara Ben Zientara says:

      Coal costs are around $42.58/ton right now (source:, and you’d need about 52,000 tons per year (3.6 trains’-worth). That’s about $2.2 million this year. And coal costs rise about 4% every year (same source as above), which means the cost for the 30 years of coal in this example is actually around $110 million.

      And don’t forget it costs money to build a coal plant. About $3,500/kW of capacity, not including financing costs. (source:

      You’d need about 12 MW of capacity to produce the same amount of energy as the solar panels, so that’s ~$42 million to build the plant.

      Total for coal over 30 years: $44 million this year, and $107 million over the following 29 years. $151 million total.

      Cost to install solar is now at roughly $1/watt (source:, meaning the total cost of solar is $89 million, and that could be financed over a dozen years or so to reduce the net present cost.

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