Alternative Sources Of Energy

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Besides nuclear energy, there are many other alternatives to fossil fuels that are being explored in the world today, but doubts about whether these alternatives can ever achieve the ease and convenience of fossil fuels have hindered their widespread implementation. Descriptions of some of these alternative energy sources follow.


Biomass is both a renewable and an alternative source of energy. It is primarily burned for heat and electricity. Wood chips, sawdust, black liquor, and byproducts of pulp and paper are forms of biomass that may be burned in large power plants instead of coal. Biomass energy can be far less polluting than coal energy, but some level of greenhouse gas emissions is still involved in its use.

Biomass may also be used as an alternative car fuel. It can be combined with gasoline to form a substance known as gasohol, or it may be converted into the alternative auto fuels ethanol and methanol. Ethanol is typically produced from corn in the United States. Both of these fuels are better for the environment than gasoline, but automobile engines need to be specially designed to accommodate their use.

Another alternative biomass fuel is biodiesel, which can be used in any standard diesel engine. It is derived from vegetable oil and other plant fats, as well as animal fat. Biodiesel is reportedly highly energy efficient, yielding more than three times the energy needed to produce it. There are more than 500 biodiesel filling stations in the United States, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the U.S. military also use biodiesel in selected vehicles and equipment.36

Animal waste has also been used as a biomass fuel, but it is associated with a high pollutant effect. Also, traditional fuels need to be used in the growing, processing, conversion, and transportation of many biomass sources of energy, minimizing their value as fossil fuel alternatives.

Solar Power

Solar power is another alternative and renewable source of energy. Solar energy can be harnessed passively or actively. An example of a passive use of solar energy would be designing a home with most of its windows facing south so as to receive the rays of the daylight Sun and with thick walls and floors that could absorb the heat and release it at night when the Earth cools down. An example of an active use of solar energy would be to install solar panels on a home for heat or electricity. The solar panels that are used for electricity are flat panels made up of photovoltaic cells, which are tiny, crystalline semiconductor structures made from silicon, with boron and phosphorus added. The boron and phosphorus create a positively charged region and a negatively charged region within the cell that produce a current when stimulated by the Sun's rays. Solar panels that are used for heating do not have cells but are specially designed to absorb heat from the Sun. The energy generated is then used for hot-water heating.

When used to generate electricity, a solar system needs to be connected to the electrical power grid and thus will automatically shut down when power to the grid fails, unless a battery backup system is used to store a portion of the solar-generated electricity. Batteries can be expensive, and solar panels are also costly to install, but many states offer rebate programs. On the other hand, solar power plants to generate electricity for large areas, as opposed to individual homes and businesses, are expensive to build and require a great deal of space. Nonetheless, there are many advantages to having solar-generated electricity or hot water heat in a home or business, including reduced (or absent, if the solar system is large enough) utility bills. At the same time, however, solar energy systems are not for everyone, as they require a certain amount of space to allow enough panels to be installed to make the system worthwhile, should be exposed to little or no shading from trees or surrounding buildings, and generally need to be installed in an east-, west-, or south-facing area. Additionally, cloud cover, the winter season, and northern latitudes limit the energy that solar systems can produce.

Geothermal Energy

Geothermal energy is another type of alternative energy source. It harnesses the temperature of the Earth's core as a source of energy. Geothermal systems involve the drilling of wells into underground areas that contain water that is heated by the Earth's core. The hot water or steam that travels up the wells can be used to generate electricity or to heat or cool a structure. When geothermal energy is used for electricity, the steam or hot water is harnessed as a force to turn turbines that generate electricity. When geothermal energy is used for heating and cooling, the pressure of the steam or hot air is harnessed to distribute hot or cold air within a structure. Geothermal energy has little environmental impact, but geothermal power plants can be unwieldy, geothermal energy has limited efficiency, and geothermal systems are also highly location dependent; reserves of geothermal energy are not available everywhere.


Water power, or hydropower, is another form of renewable energy. It has been used too long to be considered alternative; today it is the most widely used renewable resource in the world and accounts for almost half of all renewable energy used in the United States. However, while it is renewable and relatively benign, it may also be associated with substantial environmental risks. When hydropower derives from falling water that runs through a dam and turns turbines, thereby generating electricity, it is called hydroelectric power. Dams and reservoirs of large hydroelectric power systems have been known to cause significant flood damage in portions of the United States and elsewhere in the world, wiping out local ecosystems.


Another alternative source of energy is hydrogen, which is extracted from a compound such as water, natural gas or other hydrocarbon fuels, or ethanol. It can be harnessed for power in the form of a fuel cell, a device similar to a battery that contains a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen that engage in a continuously flowing chemical reaction that produces water and energy. Fuel cells are stacked together to produce energy. Limitations of hydrogen are that the process used to extract it is very energy intensive and there are difficulties involved in storing it. It must be stored in liquid form below -423°F, a temperature that demands extreme insulation (and caution). It may also be stored as a compressed gas at a pressure of a few thousand pounds per square inch. Another downside is that automobiles and other equipment must be altered to allow the use of energy from hydrogen via fuel cells. Nonetheless, hydrogen is nonpolluting and versatile, and it is being researched for applications in electric power plants and to replace gasoline in motor vehicles.

Wind Power

Wind power is used to generate electricity by turning turbines. It is the fastest-growing renewable energy source in the United States. As water power has, wind power has been used far too long to be truly considered alternative. Complaints associated with wind power include that wind is irregular and unpredictable and that wind turbines can be loud, large, unsightly, and hazardous to birds. Wind turbines are also limited in efficiency because of the sporadic nature of wind. However, wind is an inexhaustible resource, and wind farms, sites consisting of multiple wind turbines that generate electricity, are capable of producing enough electricity to rival that of conventional, coal-fired power plants. The United States has some of the largest wind farms in the world. The wind power market is also highly developed in Western Europe, particularly in Denmark, Germany, and Spain.

The history of energy production and consumption has placed at the forefront many issues and challenges that are still being played out in the world today.

But it is mainly in the past 30 years that the world has confronted its most looming energy-related challenges: disruptions in oil supply, price fluctuations and vulnerable economies, environmental dilemmas resulting from polluting fossil fuel emissions, the ominous possibility of running short of oil and other sources of energy at a time when the world is most dependent on them, and shakeups in relationships among countries that depend for their economic and political stability on an ever-flowing supply of oil and natural gas. These problems have had implications both in the United States and throughout the countries of Asia, the Middle East, Europe, Africa, and Latin America. The next two chapters will explore how the United States, as well as China, Germany, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, and Venezuela, have confronted these issues.

1 Donald G. Kaufman and Cecilia M. Franz. Biosphere 2000... Protecting Our Global Environment, 3d ed. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt, 2000, p. 194.

2 F. Peter W. Winteringham. Energy Use and the Environment. Chelsea, Mich.: Lewis, 1992, p. 2.

3 Tom Mast. Over a Barrel: A Simple Guide to the Oil Shortage. Austin, Tex.: Hayden, 2005, p. 18.

4 Jean-Claude Debeir et al. In the Servitude of Power: Energy and Civilization through the Ages. London: Zed Books, 1990, p. 13.

5 According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA) the popularity of nonrenewable resources persists in the world today, as only about 13 percent of the world's primary energy supply was from renewable resources, including hydropower, in 2004, and the rest from nonrenewable energy sources. In the United States in particular, renewable energy accounted for just 6 percent of energy consumption in 2005. The remaining percentage was mainly from fossil fuels—that is, from coal, oil, and natural gas. The relevant statistics can be found in the chapter of the EIA's International Energy Annual titled "World Energy Overview." Available online. URL: and in Annual Energy Review 2005, p. 280. Available online. URL: html. Both accessed August 2, 2006.

6 See the EIA report Emissions of Greenhouse Gases in the United States 2005, p. 5. Available online. URL: Accessed March 15, 2007.

7 See the EIA report International Energy Outlook 2006, p. 73. Available online. URL: http:// Accessed August 2, 2006.

8 Presentation of Robert T. Watson, chair, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), at the Sixth Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, November 13, 2000. Available at the IPCC Web site. URL: http://www.ipcc. ch/press/sp-cop6.htm. Accessed August 3, 2006.

9 Charles Dickens. Bleak House. New York: W. W. Norton, 1977, p. 5.

10 Jean-Claude Debeir et al. In the Servitude of Power, p. 111.

11 See entry for 1850-1980 in the Energy Information Administration's Energy Kid's Page, section "History: Timelines." Available online. URL: timelines/index.html. Accessed August 3, 2006.

12 Jean-Claude Debeir et al. In the Servitude of Power, p. 118.

14 See the EIA's Annual Energy Review 2005, p. 8.

15 BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2006, p. 11. Available online. URL: statisticalreview. Accessed March 15, 2007.

16 The relevant statistics can be found in the EIA's International Energy Annual: "World Energy Overview." Available online. URL: Accessed August 2, 2006.

17 Paul Roberts. The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004, p. 15.

18 Jean-Claude Debeir et al. In the Servitude of Power, p. 113.

19 Jean-Claude Debeir et al. In the Servitude of Power, p. 114.

20 Douglas G. Brinkley. Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress. New York: Penguin Books, 2004, pp. 333-351.

21 Jean-Claude Debeir et al. In the Servitude of Power, p. 114.

22 Jean-Claude Debeir et al. In the Servitude of Power, p. 130.

23 Today the Seven Sisters have become four: ExxonMobil, Chevron-Texaco, BP, and Royal Dutch Shell.

24 Jean-Claude Debeir et al. In the Servitude of Power, p. 136.

25 See M. A. Adelman. The Economics of Petroleum Supply: Papers by M. A. Adelman, 1963-1993. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1993, pp. 329-357.

26 Richard Kerr. "OPEC's Second Coming." Science, August 21, 1998, p. 1,129.

27 See entry for 1979-1982 in the Energy Information Administration's Energy Kid's Page, section "History: Timelines." Accessed August 3, 2006. See also EIA data for 1979 and 1982 in Table 1.3, Energy Consumption by Source, and Table 1.5, Energy Consumption, Expenditures, and Emissions Indicators, 1949-2005. Available online. URL: http://www.eia.doe. gov/emeu/aer/overview.html.

28 See entry for 1970 in the Energy Information Administration's Energy Kid's Page, sections "History: Timelines." See also EIA's report Annual Energy Review 2005, p. xxiii.

29 See the EIA's online resource "Energy Plug: Long-Term World Oil Supply: A Resource Base/Production Path Analysis." Available online. URL: plworld.html. Accessed August 3, 2006.

30 The relevant statistics can be found in the EIA's Country Analysis Briefs: China (August 2006), p. 2. Available online. URL:

31 See the EIA's Monthly Energy Overview (February 2007), p. 43. Available online. URL:

32 See "Energy Plug: Long-Term World Oil Supply: A Resource Base/Production Path Analysis." Available online. URL: Accessed August 3, 2006.

33 Chris Skrebowski. "Joining the Dots." Paper presented at 2004 Energy Institute Conference: Oil Depletion: No Problem, Concern or Crisis? London, November 10, 2004.

34 David Goodstein. Out of Gas. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004, p. 21.

35 Mykola D. Tronko et al. "Thyroid Carcinoma in Children and Adolescents in Ukraine after the Chernobyl Nuclear Accident: Statistical Data and Clinicomorphologic Characteristics." Cancer, 86, no. 1 (July 1, 1999), pp. 149-156.

36 The Tribune Co. "Foreign Fuel Subsidy Burns Taxpayers." Tampa Tribune, December 26, 2005, p. 14.

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