Alternative energy sources are substitutes for fossil fuels such as crude oil. These fossil fuel substitutes include: solar energy, oil sands, wind power, coal mine methane, geothermal energy, nuclear energy, hybrid cars, LNG, hydrogen fuel cells, and shale formation natural gas. Some environmentalists might disagree about including the newly-developed shale formation natural gas as alternative energy sources, but the reserves of clean natural gas in shale formations are too large to be ignored.
Energy efficiency improvements 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 substitute for crude oil 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 will eventually occur. (Fortunately, large natural gas reserves are being discovered in the numerous shale formations of this country).
b. Renewable 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 high cost has slowed their development.
Do We Have Any Choice About Developing Alternative Energy? We have no choice! Otherwise, eventually look out for an energy crisis!
The U.S. East Coast is recovering from Superstorm Sandy, one of the most powerful storms to ever hit the East Coast. At least 100 persons killed and 50 billion damage! Many experts are blaming the out-of-season storm on global warming. Perhaps, just perhaps, we will now get busy solving the problems of global warming. Certainly, there will be fewer "wink...wink...nod...nods, when the subject of global warming or climate change is brought up.---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Improvement in efforts to develop alternative energy sources are improving but not nearly enough to replace our dwindling 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 long run, we probably won't be able to drill ourselves out of the energy crisis.
Meantime, the pickup trucks are getting so large that one has trouble seeing over the truck beds. Gasoline and other fuel costs are up over the levels that existed several years ago, but most people have adjusted to higher gasoline prices fairly well.
But what about the really big fuel price increases that will hit in the future as the oil supply gets tighter.
When I first wrote about this topic, I was very discouraged because I envisioned Peak Oil fast approaching, and little being done to develop oil substitutes. But...... Surprise! Surprise! there have been some successes as market forces came into play and, equally important, people around the world became aware of the seriousness of the energy crisis problem.
These success stories 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 great enough, yet but good things are beginning to happen.
But we digress a little from the subject which is to examine specific alternative energy sources which might be used as crude oil substitutes. Crude oil has about reached the top of its production curves (Peak Oil).
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 clean fossil fuel) is itself increasingly being used as an alternative energy source or substitute for other fossil fuels, e.g., liquefied natural gas (LNG), and compressed natural gas (CNG).
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 alternative energy source (see next section).
Some alternative 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 can be considered an alternative energy source but 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 an alternative energy source.
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 similar efficiency improvements were important back in the 70's, 80's and 90's during past energy crises.
I apologize for giving such screwy definitions, but the reader likely will see the logic in my definition. Too many folks want to jump from the conventional fossil fuels to exotic fuel sources in one big 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 the output is increasing rapidly. 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 other deposits of somewhat 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 year or so 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 .
Still another problem with the oil sands development is that construction and production costs are moving up almost as fast as increases in the value of the oil product obtained. Without tax and royalty subsidies, some environmentalists claim (questionable claim!) that mining the oil sands might not even be a break-even project.
Canada is plunging ahead with oil sands development (includes 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 have to serve as a bridge fuel until the more exotic renewable fuels are developed.
LNG is frozen natural gas. and it is considered an alternative 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 technical discussion on LNG and Alternative Energy Company Stocks provides information on some of the companies engaged in providing alternative energy.
LNG is an alternative energy source whose time has come! But will the U.S. take full advantage of the abundance of natural gas and develop the infrastructure needed to make full use of LNG?
Recent Development. LNG has been used in specially-designed heavy trucks as a replacement for diesel.
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 Peak Oil and the energy crisis so that we, at least, have a chance of surviving.
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 that can handle the battery charging, etc. and other new tasks associated with the plug-ins. The plug-ins won't help much with the immediate problem of the present runaway fuel prices that we are seeing, but, in the long run, they will help a lot.
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 20% of all that country's energy requirements. In Germany and Spain, wind energy is providing about 7% 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 Peak Oil 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 in the future, particularly in power plants. A major problem (other than safety) is that no method of applying nuclear energy to automobiles and other small applications has been developed. Eventually, such a method may be worked out, e.g., battery-operated cars, but, by that time, Peak Oil may have us by the throat.
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. As a result, the price of Uranium is shooting through the roof.
Nuclear power plants are going to become an increasingly important energy source whether we like it or not.
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!
1. Renewable Alternative Energy Sources. Specific types of renewable alternative energy sources - solar, biodiesel, wind are discussed.
2. Alternative Energy Stocks. Alternative Energy Stocks
3. Oil & Energy Company Stocks. Oil company stock investments reviewed include large and small oil companies, oil field services companies, and alternative energy companies.
4. Global Warming. I live in New Orleans where the heat gets worse each year and the hurricanes get stronger. For those reasons, most people down here believe in Global Warming....even though Louisiana is a strong conservative state.
5. 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..
6. German side of World War 2
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. (But, government subsidies are not always bad and this could be one of those instances where such subsidies are necessary.)
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. Would the U.S. let our political differences with Cuba stand in the way?
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.
Another good-sounding possibility is to make biodiesel using algae to produce the biodiesel. I researched this a little because I thought it might be possible for me to produce biodiesel in a backyard greenhouse and make a little money. But, alas! Apparently, the undesirable types of algae are bad about shouldering out the good diesel-producing forms. It is not for the amateur. But for the professional, this is a possibility. Still, the algae processes are early in research and several years of development lie ahead.
In any event, biodiesel may have more of a long-range future than ethanol.
Recovery of coal bed methane is a fast growing enterprise in this country. 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 and the recovery of coal bed methane will likely prove an important source of natural gas. We should continue to pursue recovery efforts.
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.
The Fischer-Tropsch Process is not limited to use with coal only. It can convert almost any carbon-containing substance including natural gas & biomass to either a liquid or gaseous fuel. But coal is where the process has made its name and the U.S. has an awful lot of coal. Hopefully, continued modifications to the process will reduce its pollution-producing and make coal products more available in the peak oil fight. As noted, the Fischer-Tropsch process is under constant modification with new uses for it being constantly developed.
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 large size and, eventually, as peak oil arrives in force, we may have to go forward with shale oil development.
But, until more information is forthcoming, shale oil is left in the "hold" column.
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 time to help with Peak Oil In addition to supplying our fuel needs, the hydrates have been implicated in catastrophic warming events in Earth's history in the distant past .
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 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 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 out 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 more 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 $90 per barrel oil price. 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.
Present attempts to solve the Peak Energy or Energy Crisis seldom mention project management techniques which have been so effective in driving large-scale government projects to success, projects such as the Moon Program, the Manhattan Atomic Bomb Project, defense programs during World War 2, e.g., Liberty Ship production, airplane production, development, missile programs such as the Minuteman program, and countless construction projects in the private and public arenas.
This nation can accomplish a lot when it is committed and project management techniques are employed. Why aren't we using more project management techniques in the development of alternative energy sources?
Perhaps the Obama administration will be more competent and will realize the advantages of a project management approach.
Time's recent cover story, "The Clean Energy Scam," presented a shocking, pessimistic expose on biofuels. Michael Grunwald was the author of the article.
If the article turns out to have painted the correct picture of the bio-fuels such as ethanol and bio-diesel, we are in a heap of trouble! I suspected that the ethanol craze was, at least, partly a scam, but I had no idea of the magnitude of the ethanol problems. Additionally, the information presented in the article on bio-diesel was largely new to me.
One result of the Time story is that it makes me realize the value of the conventional energy sources - crude oil, natural gas, & coal - and how we must rely heavily on them for the next few decades until we get the alternative energy systems straightened out. Fortunately, several giant oil and natural gas fields have recently been discovered which will help us hold off peak oil for a few additional years. These strikes include the offshore Brazil oil fields, the Bakken Shale Formation of North Dakota, and other U. S. shale formations containing natural gas and oil .
Alternative Energy Sources are being developed at a faster rate as global warming and severe climate change begins. Alternative Energy Sources or Oil & Fuel Substitutes are divided into the categories of "non-renewable" energy sources, e.g. natural gas, and "renewable" energy sources, e.g. solar energy, LNG, wind power, hybrid cars, solar energy, GTL, and improved energy efficiency.
Last updated: 05/06/13