What is Alternative Energy?

Alternative energy is an umbrella term that refers to any source of usable energy intended to replace fuel sources without the undesired consequences of the replaced fuels.[1]

The term “alternative” presupposes a set of undesirable energy technologies against which “alternative energies” are contrasted. As such, the list of energy technologies excluded is an indicator of which problems the alternative technologies are intended to address. Controversies regarding dominant sources of energy and their alternatives have a long history. The nature of what was regarded alternative energy sources has changed considerably over time, and today, because of the variety of energy choices and differing goals of their advocates, defining some energy types as “alternative” is highly controversial.

In a general sense in contemporary society, alternative energy is that which is produced without the undesirable consequences of the burning of fossil fuels, such as high carbon dioxide emissions, which is considered to be the major contributing factor of global warming according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Sometimes, this less comprehensive meaning of “alternative energy” excludes nuclear energy (e.g. as defined in the Michigan Next Energy Authority Act of 2002).[2]

Coal as an alternative to wood

Historian Norman F. Cantor describes how in the late medieval period, coal was the new alternative fuel to save the society from overuse of the dominant fuel, wood:

“Europeans had lived in the midst of vast forests throughout the earlier medieval centuries. After 1250 they became so skilled at deforestation that by 1500 AD they were running short of wood for heating and cooking… By 1500 Europe was on the edge of a fuel and nutritional disaster, [from] which it was saved in the sixteenth century only by the burning of soft coal and the cultivation of potatoes and maize. “[12]

Petroleum as an alternative to whale oil

Whale oil was the dominant form of lubrication and fuel for lamps in the early 19th century, but the depletion of the whale stocks by mid century caused whale oil prices to skyrocket setting the stage for the adoption of petroleum which was first commercialized in Pennsylvania in 1859.[13]

Alcohol as an alternative to fossil fuels

In 1917, Alexander Graham Bell advocated ethanol from corn, wheat and other foodstuffs as an alternative to coal and oil, stating that the world was in measurable distance of depleting these fuels. For Bell, the problem requiring an alternative was lack of renewability of orthodox energy sources.[14] Since the 1970s, Brazil has had an ethanol fuel program which has allowed the country to become the world’s second largest producer of ethanol (after the United States) and the world’s largest exporter.[15] Brazil’s ethanol fuel program uses modern equipment and cheap sugar cane as feedstock, and the residual cane-waste (bagasse) is used to process heat and power.[16] There are no longer light vehicles in Brazil running on pure gasoline. By the end of 2008 there were 35,000 filling stations throughout Brazil with at least one ethanol pump.[17]

Cellulosic ethanol can be produced from a diverse array of feedstocks, and involves the use of the whole crop. This new approach should increase yields and reduce the carbon footprint because the amount of energy-intensive fertilizers and fungicides will remain the same, for a higher output of usable material.[18][19] As of 2008, there are nine commercial cellulosic ethanol plants which are either operating, or under construction, in the United States.[20]

Second-generation biofuels technologies are able to manufacture biofuels from inedible biomass and could hence prevent conversion of food into fuel.” [21] As of July 2010, there is one commercial second-generation (2G) ethanol plant Inbicon Biomass Refinery, which is operating in Denmark.[22]

Coal gasification as an alternative to petroleum

In the 1970s, President Jimmy Carter‘s administration advocated coal gasification as an alternative to expensive imported oil. The program, including the Synthetic Fuels Corporation was scrapped when petroleum prices plummeted in the 1980s. The carbon footprint and environmental impact of coal gasification are both very high.

Common types of alternative energy

Solar energy

Solar energy is generating of electricity from the sun. It is split up into two types, thermal and electric energy. These two subgroups mean that they heat up homes (and water) and generate electricity respectively.

Wind energy

Wind energy is generating of electricity from the wind.

Geothermal energy

Geothermal energy is using hot water or steam from the Earth’s interior for heating buildings or electricity generation.

Biofuel and ethanol

Biofuel and ethanol are plant-derived substitutes of gasoline for powering vehicles.


Hydrogen is used as clean fuel for airplanes, spaceships, and vehicles.

Renewable energy vs non-renewable energy

Renewable energy is generated from natural resources—such as sunlight,[23] wind, rain, tides and geothermal heat—which are renewable (naturally replenished). When comparing the processes for producing energy, there remain several fundamental differences between renewable energy and fossil fuels. The process of producing oil, coal, or natural gas fuel is a difficult and demanding process that requires a great deal of complex equipment, physical and chemical processes. On the other hand, alternative energy can be widely produced with basic equipment and naturally basic processes. Wood, the most renewable and available alternative energy, burns the same amount of carbon it would emit if it degraded naturally.[24]

Ecologically friendly alternatives

Renewable energy sources such as biomass are sometimes regarded as an alternative to ecologically harmful fossil fuels. Renewables are not inherently alternative energies for this purpose. For example, the Netherlands, once leader in use of palm oil as a biofuel, has suspended all subsidies for palm oil due to the scientific evidence that their use “may sometimes create more environmental harm than fossil fuels”.[25] The Netherlands government and environmental groups are trying to trace the origins of imported palm oil, to certify which operations produce the oil in a responsible manner.[25] Regarding biofuels from foodstuffs, the realization that converting the entire grain harvest of the US would only produce 16% of its auto fuel needs, and the decimation of Brazil’s CO2 absorbing tropical rain forests to make way for biofuel production has made it clear that placing energy markets in competition with food markets results in higher food prices and insignificant or negative impact on energy issues such as global warming or dependence on foreign energy.[26] Recently, alternatives to such undesirable sustainable fuels are being sought, such as commercially viable sources of cellulosic ethanol.

Relatively new concepts for alternative energy

Algae fuel

Algae fuel is a biofuel which is derived from algae. During photosynthesis, algae and other photosynthetic organisms capture carbon dioxide and sunlight and convert it into oxygen and biomass. The benefits of algal biofuel are that it can be produced industrially, thereby obviating the use of arable land and food crops (such as soy, palm, and canola), and that it has a very high oil yield as compared to all other sources of biofuel.

Biomass briquettes

Biomass briquettes are being developed in the developing world as an alternative to charcoal. The technique involves the conversion of almost any plant matter into compressed briquettes that typically have about 70% the calorific value of charcoal. There are relatively few examples of large scale briquette production. One exception is in North Kivu, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where forest clearance for charcoal production is considered to be the biggest threat to Mountain Gorilla habitat. The staff of Virunga National Park have successfully trained and equipped over 3500 people to produce biomass briquettes, thereby replacing charcoal produced illegally inside the national park, and creating significant employment for people living in extreme poverty in conflict affected areas. [27]

Biogas digestion

Biogas digestion deals with harnessing the methane gas that is released when waste breaks down. This gas can be retrieved from garbage or sewage systems. Biogas digesters are used to process methane gas by having bacteria break down biomass in an anaerobic environment. [28] The methane gas that is collected and refined can be used as an energy source for various products.

Biological Hydrogen Production

Hydrogen gas is a completely clean burning fuel; its only by-product is water.[29] It also contains relatively high amount of energy compared with other fuels due to its chemical structure.[30]

2H2 + O2 → 2H2O + High Energy

High Energy + 2H2O → 2H2 + O2

This requires a high-energy input, making commercial hydrogen very inefficient.[31] Use of a biological vector as a means to split water, and therefore produce hydrogen gas, would allow for the only energy input to be solar radiation. Biological vectors can include bacteria or more commonly algae. This process is known as biological hydrogen production.[32] It requires the use of single celled organisms to create hydrogen gas through fermentation. Without the presence of oxygen, also known as an anaerobic environment, regular cellular respiration cannot take place and a process known as fermentation takes over. A major by-product of this process is hydrogen gas. If we could implement this on a large scale, then we could take sunlight, nutrients and water and create hydrogen gas to be used as a dense source of energy.[33] Large-scale production has proven difficult. It was not until 1999 that we were able to even induce these anaerobic conditions by sulfur deprivation.[34] Since the fermentation process is an evolutionary back up, turned on during stress, the cells would die after a few days. In 2000, a two-stage process was developed to take the cells in and out of anaerobic conditions and therefore keep them alive.[35] For the last ten years, finding a way to do this on a large-scale has been the main goal of research. Careful work is being done to ensure an efficient process before large-scale production, however once a mechanism is developed, this type of production could solve our energy needs.[36]

Floating wind farms

Floating wind farms are similar to a regular wind farm, but the difference is that they float in the middle of the ocean. Offshore wind farms can be placed in water up to 40 metres (130 ft) deep, whereas floating wind turbines can float in water up to 700 metres (2,300 ft) deep.[37] The advantage of having a floating wind farm is to be able to harness the winds from the open ocean. Without any obstructions such as hills, trees and buildings, winds from the open ocean can reach up to speeds twice as fast as coastal areas.[38]

Investing in alternative energy

Over the last three years publicly traded alternative energy have been very volatile, with some 2007 returns in excess of 100%, some 2008 returns down 90% or more, and peak-to-trough returns in 2009 again over 100%.[citation needed] In general there are three subsegments of “alternative” energy investment: solar energy, wind energy and hybrid electric vehicles. Alternative energy sources which are renewable, free and have lower carbon emissions than what we have now are wind energy, solar energy, geothermal energy, and bio fuels. Each of these four segments involve very different technologies and investment concerns.

For example, photovoltaic solar energy is based on semiconductor processing and accordingly, benefits from steep cost reductions similar to those realized in the microprocessor industry (i.e., driven by larger scale, higher module efficiency, and improving processing technologies). PV solar energy is perhaps the only energy technology whose electricity generation cost could be reduced by half or more over the next 5 years. Better and more efficient manufacturing process and new technology such as advanced thin film solar cell is a good example of that helps to reduce industry cost.[39]

The economics of solar PV electricity are highly dependent on silicon pricing and even companies whose technologies are based on other materials (e.g., First Solar) are impacted by the balance of supply and demand in the silicon market.[citation needed] In addition, because some companies sell completed solar cells on the open market (e.g., Q-Cells), this creates a low barrier to entry for companies that want to manufacture solar modules, which in turn can create an irrational pricing environment.

In contrast, because wind power has been harnessed for over 100 years, its underlying technology is relatively stable. Its economics are largely determined by siting (e.g., how hard the wind blows and the grid investment requirements) and the prices of steel (the largest component of a wind turbine) and select composites (used for the blades). Because current wind turbines are often in excess of 100 meters high, logistics and a global manufacturing platform are major sources of competitive advantage. These issues and others were explored in a research report by Sanford Bernstein. Some of its key conclusions are shown here.[25]

Alternative energy in transportation

Due to steadily rising gas prices in 2008 with the US national average price per gallon of regular unleaded gas rising above $4.00 at one point,[40] there has been a steady movement towards developing higher fuel efficiency and more alternative fuel vehicles for consumers. In response, many smaller companies have rapidly increased research and development into radically different ways of powering consumer vehicles. Hybrid and battery electric vehicles are commercially available and are gaining wider industry and consumer acceptance worldwide.[41]

For example, Nissan USA introduced the world’s first mass-production Electric Vehicle “Nissan Leaf“.[42]

Making Alternative Energy Mainstream

Before alternative energy becomes main-stream there are a few crucial obstacles that it must overcome: First there must be increased understanding of how alternative energies work and why they are beneficial; secondly the availability components for these systems must increase; and lastly the pay-off time must be decreased.

For example, electric vehicles (EV) and Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEV) are on the rise. These vehicles depend heavily on an effective charging infrastructure such as a smart grid infrastructure to be able to implement electricity as mainstream alternative energy for future transportations.