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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.

The term "alternative" presupposes a set of undesirable energy technologies against which "alternative energies" are opposed. As such, the list of energy technologies excluded is an indicator of what problems that the alternative technologies are intended to address. alternative-energy-biomass3.jpgControversies regarding dominant forms of energy and their alternatives have a long history. The nature of what was regarded alternative energy sources has changed considerably, 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 general, alternative energy is that which is produced without the undesired consequences of the burning of fossil fuels, such as high carbon dioxide emissions, the major contributing factor of global warming according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Sometimes, the less comprehensive meaning of "alternative energy" also excludes nuclear energy. Official use of the term excludes nuclear energy.

History

Historians of economies have studied the key transitions to alternative energies and regard the transitions as pivotal in bringing about significant economic change. Prior to shift to an alternative energy, supplies of the dominant energy type became erratic, accompanied by rapid increases in energy prices.

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."

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 by mid century and the depletion of the whale stocks, whale oil prices were skyrocketing and could not compete with the newly discovered source of cheap petroleum from Pennsylvania in 1859.

Alcohol as alternative to fossil fuels

In 1917, Alexander Graham Bell advocated ethanol from corn 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. 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. 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. 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.

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 fertilisers and fungicides will remain the same, for a higher output of usable material. As of 2008, there are nine commercial cellulosic ethanol plants which are either operating, or under construction, in the United States.

Coal gasification as alternative to expensive 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.

Renewable energy as alternative to non-renewable energy

Renewable energy is energy generated from natural resources—such as sunlight, 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 so called "alternative" energy,burns the same amount of carbon it would emit if it degraded naturally.

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%. 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 then what we have now are wind energy, solar energy, geothermal energy, and bio fuels. Each of these three 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. Advanced thin film Solar cell is now a good example of new technology that could help to reduce industry cost in the future.

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. 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. wind.jpgIts 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.

Recent forms

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". 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. 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. Recently, alternatives to such undesirable sustainable fuels are being sought, such as commercially viable sources of cellulosic ethanol.

Relatively new concepts for alternative energy

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 meters (131 feet) deep, whereas floating wind turbines can float in water up to 700 meters (2, 297 feet) deep. 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. A Norwegian energy company, StatoilHydro, will launch the first test period for the floating wind farms in autumn 2009.

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. The methane gas that is collected and refined can be used as an energy source for various products.

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.

Helioculture

Helioculture is a newly developed process which is claimed to be able to produce 20,000 gallons of fuel per acre per year, and which removes carbon dioxide from the air as a feedstock for the fuel.

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, 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.


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