All energy sources have their roots in the Natural World, even oil, gas, and coal. What has become known as “alternative” energy sources are really better thought of as “renewable” sources of energy. That is, energy available from the Natural World that is automatically replenished by natural processes. But renewables are also thought of as “cleaner” forms of energy that don’t cause as much pollution when used.
The conventional alternatives to oil, gas, coal, and nuclear energy technologies are Solar, Wind, Oceans, and Geothermal. Essentially, all of these energy sources are derived from the Sun in one way or another. Wind is just movements of the air in the atmosphere, caused by uneven heating by the Sun, due to the rotation of the Earth. Waves, tides, currents, and thermal properties of the Oceans are likewise caused by Solar and Lunar interactions. Geothermal energy simply means “heat from the Earth.” This is the one alternative energy source whose relationship back to the Sun is ancient, as opposed to the others, which are more immediate.
These technologies are covered here because they represent energy that is available from the Natural World. Unfortunately, these technologies have only been developed in ways that work on the “macro-scale” and are thereby more easily controlled by the companies that provide oil, gas, coal and nuclear energy. “Small-scale” embodiments of solar and wind technologies have remained inefficient and expensive, in spite of decades of research in these fields.
To date, the most viable “alternative energy source” available right now is REAL conservation, that is “the committed insistence on not WASTING the energy you have already paid for!” Most buildings, vehicles and appliances WASTE over 50% of the energy they are designed to use, but there is no significant movement to eliminate this waste at the retail, commercial, or industrial levels.
To illustrate this point, here is a good question. If you had a budget of $2,000 and wanted to invest it in an “alternative energy project” for your home, which do you think would save you more money: Solar or conservation? The answer is, if you installed a few solar panels you might be able to lower your utility bills by 10%, but if you installed skylights and more insulation in the roof, walls, windows, and around the hot water heater, you’d be able to lower your utility bills by more than 35%. So, conservation wins, hands down, but very few people seem interest.
In spite of the fact that these technologies are primarily being developed at the large, utility scale, there are still some exciting developments in these areas. Please take a look at our recent posts to the pages on Solar, Wind, Oceans and Geothermal energy sources.
The only other “conventional alternative” I list in this section are Heat Pumps. Granted, heat pumps are not generally considered a “source of energy,” but they DO allow us to access low-grade sources of heat from the environment that would otherwise be unusable. This alone makes heat pumps a very important technology. But even more important than that, the heat pump is the Archetypal Free Energy machine, in that it introduces us to the idea of the “Co-efficient of Performance” (COP) which represents the energy GAIN in a system.
In the Oceans section, the OTEC technology uses a heat pump to derive usable energy from temperature differences in ocean water; and in the Geothermal section, heat pumps are used to lower the costs of heating and cooling buildings, such as our homes and businesses. So heat pumps are a central feature of a number of technologies that allow us easy access to energy from the Natural World.