What are Alternatives to Fossil Fuels?

Malcolm Tatum

Many people today are concerned about the continued use of fossil fuels. While just about everyone is aware of the history of fossil fuels, it is only recently that people have come to understand this type of energy source is limited, and that some of the fossil fuel disadvantages include an adverse effect on the ecological well-being of our planet. Fortunately, there are several alternatives to fossil fuels that are gaining in popularity and widespread availability.

Fossil fuels currently power much of the world.
Fossil fuels currently power much of the world.

One of the most promising alternatives to fossil fuels is solar energy. While the basic technology has been in place for decades, the expense of generating and storing solar energy was often cost-prohibitive. That is changing as ways to mass-produce effective solar energy systems for residential and commercial spaces have come into being. Today, some consumers are building homes that at least partially use solar energy for heating and cooling, rather than employing more traditional methods that make use of petroleum based products.

Hydroelectric power generating stations like the Hoover Dam generate electricity without the use of fossil fuels.
Hydroelectric power generating stations like the Hoover Dam generate electricity without the use of fossil fuels.

Wind energy presents another of the more viable alternatives to fossil fuels. While the concept of harnessing the wind to produce electricity has been around for centuries, it is only recently that the concept has captured the attention of many nations as they seek for new methods to meet the growing need for energy. As with solar solutions, the energy generated by wind turbines and other devices can be stored in batteries, and utilized on an as needed basis. Further efforts to refine the process are taking place, and there is hope that using wind energy will be an affordable alternative for just about everyone within the next couple of decades.

Solar panels can provide an alternative to fossil fuels by converting energy from the sun into electricity.
Solar panels can provide an alternative to fossil fuels by converting energy from the sun into electricity.

Water, or hydroelectric energy, is another example of alternatives to fossil fuels that have been around for a long time and are being refined for wider use today. This approach often requires controlling the flow of water in rivers or lakes, usually by building a dam and co-locating a hydroelectric plant with the dam. The water flow operates turbines that in turn generate electricity. Many power companies already use this form of energy production and are looking to increase this form of energy generation over the next few decades.

A large field of rapeseed, which is used to make biofuel.
A large field of rapeseed, which is used to make biofuel.

Biofuels also represent one of the most interesting of all modern alternatives to fossil fuels. In the broadest sense, biofuel is created using renewable resources such as plants or harvested foodstuffs like corn or soybeans. This type of fuel can also be created using waste materials that would otherwise end up in landfills. Biofuel does not have a negative impact on the environment, but it does supply many of the fossil fuel advantages that most people associate with the use of petroleum products. Today there are some vehicles on the road that make use of biofuels and the number is expected to increase in the years to come.

Wind power is an alternative to fossil fuel energy.
Wind power is an alternative to fossil fuel energy.

As more people become concerned about the state of the environment, these and other alternatives to fossil fuels will continue to be developed and refined. While it is unlikely that the use of fossil fuels will ever completely go away, creating and using these alternative energy strategies will go a long way in making better use of limited resources. At the same time, using these alternatives will make it possible to begin correcting the damage already done to ecological balance of our planet.

A ship going through a lock at the Three Gorges Dam, the world's largest hydroelectric dam, a source of renewable energy.
A ship going through a lock at the Three Gorges Dam, the world's largest hydroelectric dam, a source of renewable energy.

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Discussion Comments

Babalaas

I read about a college that was turning biomass into electricity, and it seemed like it was an efficient and self-sustaining way to make electricity. The school was somewhere in New England.

Anyway, the school was using woodchips to create gas that was ignited to heat a boiler. The wood gasification plant supplies about half of the electricity and heating needs of the school, and all of the wood comes from local sources. The article said the school was planning on growing its own willow or reeds to use for the gasification process, making the plant just as self-contained as on-site solar plants that can be found in Universities in the West. It goes to show that there are energy options for every climate and region.

cougars

@ Chicada- Another significant issue with biofuels is the social issue. Most biofuels are made from food crops. The increase in food prices during 2008-2009 is mostly attributed to the increase in biofuel production and the associated market speculation that accompanied this. For biofuels to become sustainable alternative sources of energy, they must be produced form biomass waste and non-food crops.

chicada

First generation biofuels have an impact on the environment, just not in the same way that fossil fuels do. Biomass fuels are in some senses zero emission fuels because they only emit as much carbon into the atmosphere as was extracted by the plants used to produce them.

The problem with most biofuels is that they are grown with petroleum-based fertilizers. The growing practices also allow for extensive groundwater pollution, and biological dead zones. Many biofuel crops are also grown on land that was cleared just for this purpose. A large proportion of the deforestation of the eastern Amazon and Borneo Forests can be attributed to biofuel and ethanol production. In the end, this reduces the planet's carbon carrying capacity. The forests and the oceans sequester most of the planets carbon, and both have reached their maximum efficiency.

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