Alternative energy sources are substitutes for crude oil. These Crude Oil Substitutes include: solar energy, oil sands, wind power, coal mine methane, geothermal energy, nuclear energy, LNG, hydrogen fuel cells, and natural gas..
Energy efficiency improvements should also count as alternative energy sources. Energy efficiency improvements are too important to leave out.
Several alternative energy sources discussed are still struggling to get off the ground.These are tidal & wave energy, and methane hydrates. Several of these alternative energy sources - if they can be economically developed - have the potential to provide for our energy needs for many years.
So, with the above in mind, don't completely give up on any alternative energy source as a crude oil substitute or other fossil fuel.....no matter how difficult its development looks!
Both non-renewable and renewable alternative energy sources are reviewed below:
a. Non-renewable energy sources such as natural gas and other fuels made from natural gas. Though much more plentiful than crude oil, there is a limited amount of natural gas on earth and, once used up, a Shortage of Natural Gas would eventually occur. (Fortunately, large natural gas reserves have recently been discovered and developed in the numerous shale formations of this country).
b. Renewable energy sources such as ethanol from corn, biodiesel, solar energy and wind power. The potential for these renewable resources to substitute for crude oil and fossil fuels is virtually unlimited but their high cost slowed their development. Fortunately, the cost of their development has recently been declining.
Do We Have Any Choice About Developing Alternative Energy? We have no choice! Otherwise, look out for an eventual energy crisis!
Efforts to develop alternative energy sources are improving but, possibly, not fast enough to replace dwindling world crude oil reserves. This is particularly true of the U.S. which consumes the most crude oil but where the prevailing opinion among many citizens appears to be that there is no energy crisis that can't be cured by developing the oil contained in the Arctic Refuge in Alaska or by increased offshore drilling.
I don't believe that line of reasoning is correct. In the very long run, we probably won't be able to drill ourselves out of the energy crisis.
When I first wrote about this topic, I was very discouraged because I envisioned Peak Oil fast approaching, with little being done to develop oil substitutes. But...... Surprise! Surprise! there have been some major successes as market forces came into play and, equally important, people around the world became aware of the seriousness of the energy crisis problem. "Peak oil" has been indefinitely delayed.
These success stories in delaying peak oil are covered herein.
I have had to eat some crow as the U.S. (and the world) has finally begun to grapple with the energy crisis and our innovative political and market system is beginning to come up with, at least, partial solutions. The effort is not perfect, yet, but good things are beginning to happen.
But we digress a little from the subject which is to examine specific alternative energy sources.
For the purpose of this web page, alternative energy sources are defined as any energy source or non-energy application that can substitute for or reduce the use of crude oil and coal. This is a broad definition but it is helpful in avoiding concentrating on only pristine alternative energy sources, e.g., solar energy, wind energy, etc. Obviously, we are not going to quickly solve the energy crisis with just solar energy and windmills.
(Note: natural gas was removed from my list of fossil fuels that need to be replaced because natural gas (a relatively clean fossil fuel) is itself increasingly being used as a substitute for other fossil fuels.
Another way to define the subject is to take a quick look at the entire energy spectrum. Let's break it into three categories:
Natural gas is a "clean" fuel but the supply is somewhat limited although it is more abundant in nature than crude oil. Because of its relative cleanliness and abundance, natural gas is treated, herein, as a non-renewable alternative energy source (see next section).
Certain energy sources fall into this category: LNG, oil sands and nuclear energy
Certain forms of natural gas - LNG, CNG, and GTL - are important here. These forms of natural gas or natural gas products have specific advantages when in the liquid or compressed state or when converted to a synthetic liquid fuel.
Natural gas is clean and most forms of it can be considered alternative energy sources in their own right. Please keep in mind that, natural gas is not a renewable energy source...we will eventually run out of it!
Also in the non-renewable category are the oil sands and tar sands, and nuclear energy.
These unconventional energy sources should be considered as legitimate energy substitutes since they replace conventional crude oil and coal. They are very important energy sources since they will likely be the "bridge" energy sources that we will have to use until adequate renewable energy sources are developed.
Coal, while plentiful, burns so dirty that it should never be listed as a crude oil substitute.
These are the alternative energy sources that are perpetually renewable: Solar energy, wind power, biodiesel, etc. Once fully developed, these energy sources will theoretically supply a near infinite supply of energy........when they are developed! In the meantime, we have to have the less exotic energy sources of categories discussed above.
In accordance with the above definition of alternative energy source, improved energy efficiency is considered as a renewable energy source. Efficiency improvements could be very important in meeting the energy shortage as earlier efficiency improvements were important back in the 70's, 80's and 90's during past energy crises.
I apologize for giving such lengthy, definitions, but the reader likely will see the logic in my definition. Too many folks want to jump instantly from the conventional fossil fuels to exotic fuel sources in one tiny step. It can't be done!
Several alternative energy sources look great! But other sources will need a few years before making a major contribution in replacing oil.
The oil sands are a messy, dirty way to get oil but it is being done and a huge potential is there. Lets keep going. We are never going to work the many kinks out of the recovery processes unless we work at it. There are enormous deposits of oil sands available. A majority of oil sand reserves are apparently in Western Canada (Athabasca Oil Sands) with large deposits of lower grade "tar sands" in Venezuela.
Apparently, we are going to be dealing with the oil sands for a very long time.
Mining the oil sands raises severe environmental problems. A couple of years ago, it was reported that just one mining waste pond in Canada was about 14 miles in circumference and contained over a 100 feet depth of a slow-settling, water-oil-sand-clay mix. Try cleaning up that mess!
In addition to the waste ponds, etc, the effect of the noxious emissions being produced by the oil sand treatment facilities is contributing substantially to global warming ..
Canada is plunging ahead with oil sands development (including use of government subsidies) without totally solving the environmental problems. Eventually, they will have to face up to the environmental problems and determine if they can afford the environmental damage to their country. (Note: an incredible amount of domestic and foreign (China!) money is being put into oil sand development and the Canadians are not immune to the influence of this money.
Despite all the above problems with the oil sands, oil in large quantities is being produced from the sand deposits and we probably have no choice but to continue with their development.
Eventually, we will have to move from oil and coal-based fuels to natural gas fuels and, finally, to exotic fuels such as fuel cells, solar energy, etc. Natural gas is much more plentiful than oil and shale formation natural gas is being discovered in massive quantities in the US so it will probably serve as a bridge fuel until the more exotic renewable fuels are developed.
LNG is frozen natural gas. and it is considered an alternative energy source for the purpose of this web site.
LNG is produced simply by cooling natural gas to the liquid form. The liquid natural gas is then shipped to the U.S. and elsewhere in huge cryogenic tankers. When LNG arrives at its destination, the frozen gas is unloaded at a "terminal" (usually offshore terminals!) where it is heated back to the gaseous form and distributed through conventional natural gas pipelines.
LNG has a more detailed technical discussion on LNG.
LNG is an alternative energy source whose time has come! But will the U.S. take full advantage of the nation's abundance of natural gas and develop the infrastructure needed to make full use of LNG?
Boone Pickens & Natural Gas. It should be noted that Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) is also used as fuel for vehicles. In this use, the natural gas is not liquefied. Boone Pickens makes the strong point in his Picken's Plan that natural gas is much more abundant than oil and that the recent massive discoveries of shale formation natural gas makes natural gas the "alternative fuel" of choice to temporarily replace oil in truck - automobile applications while the pristine alternative energy sources, e.g. wind power & solar energy, are being developed.
In the Gas-to-Liquid process, natural gas is used to produce a "diesel-like" fuel that is very clean. I was surprised to see that this process was so advanced overseas, particularly in South Africa .
The liquid diesel from the GTL processes is so ultra clean that it can be blended with conventional "unclean" diesel to produce a blended diesel fuel that meets governmental standards. Most developing nations are implementing new regulations reducing the allowed sulfur content of diesel to extremely low levels. At this time, an economical way to obtain the low-sulfur diesel is to blend the regular diesel with GTL liquid diesels. The clean diesel market provides a built-in market for the GTL diesel.
GTL diesel will improve air quality for those countries using it. Much of the pure GTL fuel will no doubt be sold as a specialty fuel for use by cities with air quality problems.
The GTL process is going to have a greater impact in Europe in the immediate future because Europe has gone gung-ho over diesel.
In any event, GTL may become a major substitute fuel source in a few years! LNG and GTL may delay the bad effects of the use of crude oil-based fuels so that we, at least, have a chance of surviving until more pristine fuels are fully developed.
The acceptance of Hybrid Cars by, at least, many of the public has been a surprise to me. Based on my observations, I formerly saw no hope for a substantial hybrid cars market developing in the U.S. because of their relatively small size and low power
Sure, only a relative small number of the regular (non-plug-in) hybrid cars have been sold in the U.S. and there are over 200,000,000 non-hybrid vehicles on American streets and highways. There is a long way to go to replace all these vehicles. But a substantial demand for hybrid cars is there. A very hopeful sign!
The plug-in hybrid cars have received a considerable amount of publicity recently. Many folks think of them as the save-all technology that will save us from the energy crisis and global warming. The plug-ins will certainly be welcome additions to the alternative fuel arsenal but it is going to take years to get a system up and running.
The emergence of wind power as a major alternative energy source has been a pleasant surprise.
Energy from wind is not real big in the U.S. but it is growing rapidly. In Denmark where it is providing over 20% of all that country's energy requirements. In Germany and Spain, wind energy is providing over 10% of energy requirements.
Windmills, in many ways, are close to being a perfect renewable energy source, but have the problem of producing a low-density energy product (makes energy transmission difficult) and, additionally, have some environmental problems, e.g., bird-hazards and appearance. I'm hopeful about the successes, but we will never solve the energy problem with just windmills.
Some experts are now rating wind power as the best of the alternative energy sources.
Solar Energy development is finally starting to really move.
A decade ago, solar energy was going to be our renewable energy source savior. Every one said so! But no cigar! Solar energy had many uses in small and medium applications but large applications had trouble getting started. But, the potential was there and the solar energy industry kept developing the energy source!
A hopeful development with solar energy is that the cost of producing solar energy has rapidly dropped in the past few years. If that trend continues, the use of solar energy should soar.
Detailed discussion of nuclear energy is not presented here but nuclear energy is going to play a major role in supplying energy
It should be noted that France obtains the majority of their electrical power supply using nuclear energy.
Nuclear development is also booming in oil-poor nations.
This is not a alternative energy source as some experts would define the term but it fits my above definition. Many energy experts believe, improving energy use efficiency is the most important single thing we can do to combat the energy crisis. I agree!
How We Coped With the Fuel Crisis of 70's. Certainly, making energy efficiency improvements worked well back in the '70s when a severe energy crisis occurred in this country. Remember the gas lines and women and men fist-fighting each other for a place in line?
Our engineers jumped into the breach at that time, and, quickly we had more efficient automobiles, home air conditioners, industrial equipment, etc. Energy efficiency didn't solve the energy crisis by itself but it sure helped!
What's Next in Energy Efficiency. Improvement of energy use efficiency is becoming hot again. For example, conventional incandescent light bulbs appear on the way out and are being replaced with Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs). The energy savings are enormous.
Improvement of the electrical distribution system is getting much needed attention. This includes, of course, the proper sizing of transmission lines. The introduction into the electrical distribution system of alternative energy sources such as wind energy, batteries of various sizes, and plug-in hybrid vehicles make it mandatory that transmission lines (input and output lines) are sized properly to handle the electricity produced from the alternative energy sources.
Some experts have stated that energy efficiency improvements, alone, could be of such a magnitude that energy demand would be so reduced that we could have another oil price bust like we had in the 70's & 90's after the energy improvements of those decades. What a pleasant change that would be but I will believe it when I see it!
One interesting observation made in the excellent altenergystocks.com blog is that economic incentives, alone, may not be enough to get consumers to adopt efficiency-improving new technologies. Consumers want to be seen as being "green" more than they are interested in saving a few bucks. The blog gives the example of fake solar panels being sold in Japan.
So a little psychology may be in order to sell environmental products. Puts a new twist on things!
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4. Bakken Oil Companies are striking it rich in the Bakken Shale Formation of North Dakota. The Bakken developments might be considered as an "alternative energy source" since the new oil and natural gas extraction technology developed for Bakken will reduce fossil fuel imports and, also, because the quality of the Bakken oil is extremely high..
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Ethanol, a renewable energy source, gets a lot of publicity and nice government subsidies but many experts question whether ethanol is really worthwhile. It seems to require about as much energy to produce as the energy value of the final product. Also, I am always suspicious of an energy source that requires large government subsidies for it to be marketable.
One problem is appearing from the production of ethanol from corn. The price of corn has shot up and this is a problem for many of the poorer nations that use corn as a basic food commodity. Is it to be ethanol for our SUVs or tortillas for our Mexican neighbors?
Brazil is doing great with producing ethanol from sugar cane but one must remember that you can get three crops of sugar cane per year in Brazil. In the U.S., only one crop per year can be obtained. The U.S. is not Brazil!
Cuba produces a huge amount of sugar cane and, possibly, there is potential to use some of it for ethanol production.
Processes for producing ethanol from non-edible sources, e.g. corn cobs, grass, citrus fruit wastes, and other agriculture waste, are being worked on but have not been perfected. The use of such cellulosic sources would certainly expand the potential for the use of ethanol as a fuel.
Production of ethanol from pond grown algae is receiving attention. The potential is enormous but many problems must be worked out before the process is economically feasible.
So far, most of the biodiesel has been produced from the "normal" seed oils such as soybean oil. Now, the Jatropha plant is being heavily investigated. Its seeds contain 40% oil compared to 18% for soybeans. That is a tremendous advantage but that is only the beginning!
First of all, the Jatropha plant grows fine on arid soils (look out deserts! But there are a lot of deserts around). And second, the plant is inedible so foraging animals are no problem.
Recovery of coal bed methane is a fast growing enterprise. However, I have absolutely no experience or detailed knowledge in the recovery of coal bed methane (other than a collection of brochures advising me to get rich quick by buying coal bed methane company stocks) so I can offer little discussion on the subject. Apparently, the potential reserves of coal bed methane are very large (reference: Australia) and the recovery of coal bed methane is proving an important energy source.
A number of articles have appeared recently on geothermal energy development. Geothermal energy is often used in areas, e.g., Iceland, where hot rocks are present fairly close to the surface. One method is to pump water into the rocks, allow the water to heat and then return the steam or water to the surface for use. A major problem is that locations where hot rocks exist close to the surface are not numerous.
Coal hasn't yet made a major move to become material from which new age fuel for automobiles is produced. There are enormous deposits of coal around the globe including 300 billion tons in the US which has the largest reserves of any nation. The US is known as the Saudi Arabia of coal.
A major problem with coal is that it is not environmentally friendly because its combustion produces an enormous amount of carbon dioxide.
If coal is to lead us out of peak oil, it is likely that chemical engineers will do the honor with some of the many modifications of the Fishcher-Tropsch Process. This chemical process is probably the most famous chemical process around at this time. Invented by the oil-poor Germans, they used the process in World War 2 to convert coal to a usable liquid fuel for both land vehicles and aircraft. It worked pretty well for them although allied bombing finally destroyed many of the conversion plants.
I am disappointed in the lack of progress in developing hydrogen fuel as an energy source. Many experts were so hopeful a few years ago, but economical hydrogen cars are developing much slower than expected.
Fuel cells using hydrogen may be a major energy source in a few decades, but not now!
I read that great progress has been made ( by Shell Oil, I believe) in developing shale oil from western shale rock deposits as an energy source but that political entities won't permit development from going forward because of the huge amounts of water required in the recovery processes and the pollution created. However, the shale rock deposits in the western US are of massive size and, eventually, if we deplete conventional oil and natural gas, we may have to go forward with development of shale rock as a crude oil substitute. But not now!
These are classic renewable energy sources but have not caught on although there must be literally thousands of patents on such devices and the seas are full of waves.
These methane hydrates which lie on the ocean floor and in the Arctic tundra contain enough methane to supply mankind with natural gas fuel for eons. But nobody has worked out the technology for recovering them for use as an energy source yet. Will such technology be available in the future? In contrast to supplying our fuel needs, the hydrates have been implicated in catastrophic warming events in Earth's history in the distant past. Beware!
Sir Thomas Gold was a brilliant man, one of the great geniuses, but one of his theories about energy has yet to be proven. He thought that the natural gas we are presently recovering was not of bacterial origin, as most geologists presently believe, but that the gas has been in the earth since the birth of the earth and has slowly worked its way close enough to the surface to be recovered via shallow drilling. According to his theory, if true and we drill deep enough, we will hit an inexhaustible supply of natural gas. This would take care of our energy problems forever.
But, how deep do we have to drill? There have been some rather feeble attempts to test Gold's theory but they have not been successful. .
Unconventional Natural Gas. Conventional natural gas is easy to recover. Porosity in the formation is high and the natural gas has little resistance as it is brought to the surface. Unfortunately, most conventional natural gas fields in the U.S. have been heavily drilled and production of the conventional natural gas is declining. In short, we are running a little short of the "easy" conventional gas.
Enter unconventional natural gas! Unconventional natural gas is natural gas contained in tight (nonporous) limestone formations or in tight shale rock formations. In recent years, gas companies have become very adept at producing the tight formations. For example, tight formation may be fractured using a frac fluid and then kept open by injection of proppants.
As an example of the size of the shale formation gas reserves, a recent discovery - Haynesville Shale - in my home state of Louisiana is believed by some experts to contain more than 300 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, enough to supply all U.S. requirements for natural gas for 20 years or so. And that is just one of the shale formations that has been recently discovered in the U.S.....when all the shale formations are considered, the U.S. may have an almost unlimited amount of natural gas available!
No wonder the interest in natural gas is growing. It is clean and it is plentiful!
Unconventional Oil - Bakken Formation. The same general argument for natural gas from shale is also true for oil from shale. For example, the Bakken shale Formation of North Dakota contains a huge quantity of high-quality oil. However the oil is held in a two-mile deep tight formation and special procedures are needed to recover it. One successful method is to drill down vertically to the oil-containing shale formation and then drill horizontally out into the formation. This method works but it is expensive. Several billion barrels of oil are believed to be recoverable at about the present market oil price per barrel. As the oil price goes up, more of the oil will be economically recoverable. The formation could conceivably contain a total of 400 to 500 billion barrels of oil. Estimates for final % recovery range all over the place...from 1% up to 50%.
You folks working in the Bakken, keep at it! We need every drop of oil you can produce while the development of alternative energy sources is underway. Unconventional oil and gas buy time for the more exotic renewable fuel developers. They need it! They got a late start and are going up a few blind alleys!
It should be pointed out that what I now call unconventional oil & natural gas will soon be the "conventional" oil & natural gas as the easy oil & natural gas is largely used up. Then there will be virtually nothing left but the unconventional stuff.
Alternative Energy Sources are being developed at a faster rate due to global warming and climate change. Alternative Energy Sources or Crude Oil Substitutes are divided into the categories of "non-renewable" energy sources, e.g. natural gas, and "renewable" energy sources, e.g. solar energy, wind power, hybrid cars, solar energy, energy efficiency improvements.
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Last updated: 08/01/17
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