Alternative Energy 101 | What It Is and Why It Is Important?

Alternative Energy 101: What It Is and Why It Is Important?

by | Energy

Ever since the industrial revolution, worldwide energy sources have been dominated by fossil fuels. This is true right up until today —  fossil fuels remain the dominant source of energy in the modern world.  

Coal and oil, and more recently natural gas, are used for everything from transportation to electricity generation. However, there are two main issues with these conventional energy sources: they are finite, which means they can run out, and they emit carbon dioxide, which is negatively impacting the planet. Largely for these reasons, there has been a push to move from conventional to alternative energy sources — and in recent years this has been gaining momentum. 

Below we cover everything there is to know about alternative energy and what its role will play in the world in the near future and beyond.  

What Is Alternative Energy? 

Alternative energy is exactly what it sounds like: It is an alternative to conventional energy, which consists of fossil fuels such as coal and oil. There has long been alternative energy available, from hydropower in the 19th Century to nuclear energy in the 20th Century. But, the scope and availability of alternative energy at present is much more diverse and applicable than ever before.  

We are in an age of transition, where alternative, clean energy is being developed and used more and more, which will eventually change the definition of what constitutes conventional energy — as well as what constitutes the dominant energy used around the world. 

How Does Alternative Energy Work? 

Alternative energy works much the same way that traditional or conventional energy works, except that nearly all alternative sources do not emit carbon dioxide as a byproduct (and the ones that do, such as biofuels, tend to be carbon neutral). While conventional energy relies on combustion to release energy stored in fossil fuels, alternative energy works by releasing energy in multiple ways, including combustion of resources such as methanol and biomass, as well as other methods that are covered below.  

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Why Alternative Energy Sources Are Important? 

Alternative energy sources are important for two reasons: conventional fuels are finite and will eventually run out, and alternative sources provide energy without adding to the amount of greenhouse gases (GHG) that are accumulating in the atmosphere.  

What are the Differences Between Alternative Energy and Conventional Energy?

There are many prominent differences between conventional and alternative energy. While fossil fuels have been the dominant, more traditional form of energy, there is an increasing number of alternative forms that are becoming available and being utilized in the real world. These emerging forms of energy are often renewable — though that is not a prerequisite to be classified as an alternative energy source.  

The Difference Between Alternative and Renewable Energy 

All forms of renewable energy are considered alternative energy — but not all forms of alternative energy are considered renewable energy. Basically, all forms of non-conventional energy are classified as alternative energy sources, which includes renewables — though it is not limited to them alone. There are many forms of nonrenewable energy that are carbon-free, innovative, and advanced, making them ideal forms of energy for the future, despite not being renewable.  

Are Any Alternative Energy Sources Renewable? 

Yes, many types of alternative energy sources are considered to also be renewable. In fact, the most utilized types of alternative energy in deployment today are renewable with the exception of nuclear energy, which is on the decline in most regions around the world. Renewables make up a good portion of the alternative energy landscape, and they will feature even more prominently in the near-term and long-term future.  

Types of Alternative Energy 

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There are many types of alternative energy, including both renewable and non-renewable sources. Some are better suited than others to be used on a macro scale while others are already in use but are declining as other forms are utilized more broadly in many different areas of the world. It’s important to note that there are many different types of alternative energy — and all of them provide different benefits for contributing to our shared energy future.  

Examples of Alternative Energy Sources 

Renewables, such as solar power and wind energy, are typically the first examples of alternative energy that come to mind for most people. And while these are great examples, they have become so mainstream that they are nearing the point of not being classified as alternative energy — they will likely become the new form of conventional energy used all over the world. The same is true for hydroelectric power, which is a widely utilized form of energy, making up the majority of electricity generation in countries such as Canada and Norway.  

Nuclear energy is another great example of a traditional alternative energy source — although unlike renewable energy, it is not increasing. In fact, nuclear energy is declining despite the fact that it is a carbon-free form of energy.  

Some examples of emerging alternative energy include geothermal energy, hydrogen, methanol, SMR nuclear, and biofuels 

Which Alternative Energy Sources Are in Use Today? 

All of the forms of alternative energy mentioned above are in use today, albeit in varying capacities. Renewables are by far the most used form of alternative energy around the world, with their usage increasing nearly everywhere. These include geothermal power, wind turbines, and solar cells.  

Nuclear power is also in use in many regions, though its usage is declining in most places. However, new generation SMRs have the potential to provide clean power without the associated risks of traditional nuclear power. Unfortunately, there are only a few SMR plants operating around the world as of now, though several more are scheduled for deployment in the next five years. 

Methanol is in use in a limited capacity, mainly in Europe and China. It can be used much the same way gasoline or diesel is used, though if made properly, it can be carbon neutral and provides many benefits over conventional liquid fuels. Biofuels, including biodiesel and ethanol, also offer benefits over traditional liquid fuels — and they are currently being used much more than methanol. But, they face different environmental problems when it comes to the land use impact of growing crops used specifically for fuel.  

Which Alternative Energy Sources Are Inexhaustible? 

Renewables that utilize photovoltaic solar panels to harness radiation, windmills, moving water, and heat from the Earth’s core are inexhaustible sources of energy. Alternative fuels such as hydrogen, methanol, and biofuels are also inexhaustible, but they require additional processes to be created rather than simply harnessing the power of natural features. 

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Which Alternative Energy Sources Are Exhaustible? 

Nuclear power is the most widely used alternative energy source that is exhaustible. However, this is more of a technicality — nuclear energy is so efficient and nuclear fuel (in the form of uranium and thorium) is so abundant that it would be nearly impossible to exhaust these resources. Even if we ran exclusively on this form of energy and tripled demand, it would take hundreds of years to use up the entire supply of nuclear fuel from both uranium and thorium.  

Which Alternative Energy Source Is the Best? 

There is no consensus on the overall best alternative energy source, but current deployment would suggest that solar and wind power are the best ones available. The efficiency of solar is constantly improving year over year, and the price of solar energy is dropping so much that it is now cheaper in many places than conventional energy. Wind energy has also become more available and reliable in many regions with prices also dropping to compete with traditional energy sources.  

Which Alternative Energy Source Is Most Efficient? 

The most efficient alternative energy source is SMR thorium nuclear energy. Thorium-based nuclear small modular reactors use nearly all of the available nuclear fuel, resulting in nearly 100% efficiency. This not only means that there is virtually zero radioactive waste created from this process, but it also means that a golf ball-sized sphere of thorium contains enough energy to power a mid-size city for over 100 years. 

Many other forms of alternative energy production have superior energy efficiency as well, which is why they are often referred to as green energy. This also means that these are examples of sustainable energy for more than just their reduction in atmospheric pollutants and impact on global warming — they help provide more megawatts of power than other comparable fuel sources.  

Which Alternative Energy Source Would Be the Least Damaging To the Environment? 

Most alternative energy sources are less damaging to the environment than conventional sources. Renewables provide scalable carbon-free electricity that only negatively impacts the environment during their construction — once they are deployed, they barely have an impact in any measurable way, besides taking up land space.  

Methanol and biofuels have low impacts on the environment, and they are less damaging than many other fuels, but they are not the best when it comes to positive environmental change. This is because these fuels are carbon neutral, but they release CO2 that is stored in their liquid state — meaning that they recycle the carbon they release on an endless loop of creating and burning fuels.  

Nuclear energy is great for creating carbon-free power, but it has the potential to be the most damaging to the environment out of all types of energy in existence. Nuclear waste from traditional power plants is highly radioactive — if it was ever released into nearby ecosystems, it would create serious environmental problems, as was seen with Chernobyl in the 1980s. However, new nuclear SMRs provide energy with almost zero waste and enhanced safety that lowers the potential damage to the environment. 

Hydrogen is potentially the least damaging of all energy sources on the environment. It is the most abundant element in the universe, combining with oxygen to form water — and with the ability to split from water to isolate a virtually inexhaustible supply of energy.  

The only issue with hydrogen is that there are different ways to produce it, and some are more harmful to the environment than others. Green hydrogen is the best, using renewable energy sources to create usable, versatile hydrogen with no associated greenhouse gas emissions. Brown hydrogen is the worst, as it is created using fossil fuels and carries associated emissions — however, if it is made using existing fossil fuel infrastructure, it is still worthwhile because the hydrogen itself will still provide emission-free energy created as a byproduct of conventional energy processes.  

Why Use Alternative Energy Sources? 

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There are several reasons why we should use alternative energy sources. Conventional forms of energy are finite and will begin to run out sooner or later — and given our increasing demand for energy, it will likely be sooner. It is also critical to limit our carbon emissions to stave off the worst of what climate change could bring. Increased CO2 emissions warms the average surface temperatures of Earth, which is already contributing to unpredictable weather events with uncertainty around how bad things could become.  

Why Should We Switch to Alternative Energy? 

We should switch to alternative energy to get ahead of declining fossil fuel reserves — and to mitigate the worst consequences of increased carbon emissions and climate change. This is important for our future quality of life and standard of living, both in terms of having enough energy available to meet daily needs and ensuring the planet is not excessively harmed. Some energy providers, such as Tara Energy, are already offering alternative energy sources as part of our regular services.   

Alternative Energy Replacements and Associated Costs 

Of course, switching to alternative energy sources will involve costs. For some, such as solar, there are actually financial incentives for switching because it is cheaper than traditional energy in many areas of the United States and other parts of the world. For other sources, however, costs are currently much higher than conventional energy and would require subsidies or other measures to bring prices down before people will be willing to switch.  

Can Alternative Energy Effectively Replace Fossil Fuels? 

While fossil fuels will still be around for a long time, it is not only possible but entirely likely that they will eventually be replaced by alternative energy sources. The global share of energy needs met by fossil fuels has been noticeably declining over the past few years, with renewables set to make up more and more of the balance in the coming decades.  

On top of that, if other less-proven alternative sources can come to fruition, such as hydrogen and SMRs, the share of fossil fuels could plunge dramatically, allowing for a full replacement of fossil fuels, changing what the term “conventional energy” means.  

How Much Does Alternative Energy Cost? 

There are different costs associated with different types of alternative energy. Solar, for instance, costs only $0.06 per kWh on average. Other renewable resources such as wind energy and hydroelectricity cost nearly the same with hydro being available for as low as $0.02  per kWh in some regions. Nuclear energy has the potential to cost even less, depending on which plant is operating. Bioenergy, on the other hand, is projected to cost about the same as solar on average, though currently it is not consistently available for this price. Methanol and hydrogen are too new to have any reliable real-world costs associated with them. 

How Much Will Alternative Energy Cost in the Future? 

Alternative energy should cost less and less in the future with all forms eventually becoming much cheaper than fossil fuels. It is impossible to guess how much the price per kWh will change for renewables or how much hydrogen will cost when it becomes available as a mainstream form of energy — but the trend suggests that alternative forms of energy will all be cheaper than fossil fuels in the near future.  

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The Future of Alternative Energy  

Alternative energy will not only provide better environmental energy options — it will also provide more access to energy for people around the world. The days of $100 barrels of oil are gone, and they almost certainly will not return. Renewables and other forms of alternative energy are here to stay — and they are becoming more affordable by the day. Tara Energy is one of the leading utility companies to offer increasing alternative energy options for electricity production.  

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