Alternative energy is defined as a resource that we use outside of what is possible from fossil fuels. That means items like wind, biomass, solar, and geothermal all qualify for this title. Hydropower is another option that fits into this category even though some producers need fossil fuels as a foundation to produce energy for consumption.
The nature of what we look at as an alternative energy resource has changed in dramatic ways over time. There have also been several controversies over energy use that exist because of the value that some choices offer. When you add in the differing goals of specific advocates in this economic sector, it can be quite controversial to define some energies as an alternative option.
A look at the past shows us that coal became an alternative energy to wood fuel. We started to use petroleum instead of whale oil. Ethanol is not an alternative fuel to standard gasoline. Some advocates would say that coal gasification is an alternative to petroleum.
For the purpose of this discussion on the advantages and disadvantages of alternative energy, the sources that fit this definition are solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, and marine energy.
List of the Advantages of Alternative Energy
1. Several alternative energy resources produce zero pollution.
Wind power provides us with an advantage in that it produces no pollution that contaminates the environment. There are no chemical processes taking place beyond the creation of a turbine that spins when the wind blows. That means the combustion of fossil fuels is kept to a minimum during the manufacturing process. Fewer harmful byproducts are left behind with this option as well.
Solar and hydroelectric energy offer this benefit to a lesser extent. Geothermal energy is often considered the best option since you can access it at any time once installed without worrying about emissions.
2. We can still use land resources with alternative energy.
We must develop mines and wells when accessing fossil fuel resources. Coal mining can occur underground or through strip mining efforts. We gain access to petroleum through the use of fracking techniques. When we work to develop these needed energy resources, then it becomes almost impossible to use the land for other purposes. Alternative energy does not have such a limitation.
Although solar farms are an exception to this rule, farming and grazing are still possible on land occupied by wind turbines. We still use waterways that have dams producing hydroelectric power. Since these options are also renewable, we don’t face the threat of running out of them like we might one day with fossil fuels.
3. It gives us the opportunity to use bio-based fuels.
One of the benefits that the alternative energy industry offers is the creation of bio-based fuels. This advantage includes items like ethanol and algae biofuel. These options are beneficial to the environment because the products used to create them absorb as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they release when used. That means our net consumption is the same even when accounting for all emissions.
This structure provides us with a fuel resource that is inherently renewable. Even when we consume higher levels of it, the additional biomass needed to create it in the first place is still absorbing as much carbon dioxide as we create.
4. Alternative energy works with our current infrastructure alignment.
We can use alternative energy items with the current infrastructure of the developed world. When we create electricity from hydropower, solar, or wind turbines, then it flows through the existing network and into our homes and businesses. The installation of geothermal energy works with HVAC systems that distribute heating and cooling needs to our indoor environments. Even something like algae biofuel can go through the same refinement processes as crude oil to create a usable product for numerous vehicles.
United Airlines has already used blends of biofuel from algae-based sources for up to 40% of their needs.
5. We don’t face the same threat of resource extinction with alternative energy.
When we look at the current state of crude oil, coal, and other fossil fuels, the amount of availability left is less than 60 years with the known reserves. We’ve extended this reserve over the last century as new technologies have helped us to find additional supplies, but this energy is finite by definition. Whether it disappears in 60 years or 600 years, humans will one day need to look for a different way to have access to the energy needed for survival.
Alternative energy eliminates that problem immediately. If the sun continues to shine, then we have access to solar energy. The warmth from the sun’s rays helps to create wind energy that we use. As long as our planet has water, then we can use tidal collectors and hydroelectricity structures. The existence of our world allows for geothermal energy. None of that is going away.
6. Alternative energies still produce hydrocarbons.
One of the primary reasons why fossil fuels receive a lot of support is because of the economic advantages they provide. The hydrocarbons produced from these products allow us to make everything from soap to plastic. Even the deodorant you wear may come from the refinement process. Many of the alternative energies that have a bio-based foundation produce similar items using the same process. The only difference is the cost of the items in question.
That means we must consider price as an advantage. Even though households might pay a little more for their needed items, the added value to the local economy can help to increase living standards for everyone. Flexible plant-based items, such as sugarcane, algae, and even corn in some regions, allows us to look for ways to reduce costs without limiting the amount of access that is possible with each item.
7. Alternative energies help to stabilize our economy.
The use of alternative energy creates a unique impact on our economic output. The cost of producing energy from these resources is highly dependent upon the levels of investment that occur each year. Since it doesn’t trade on the futures market like a fossil fuel, the exact cost that we pay is dependent on how much availability we’re willing to create with an initial cash infusion.
This advantage is why the stability of pricing for alternative energies exists. Even though it costs more than fossil fuel power, the outcome is predictable. Our investments also provide compounding benefits that help to lower the expense for families over time.
8. Alternative energy is a massive job creator.
The number of renewable energy jobs available around the world is estimated to be several hundred thousand positions. There are over 100,000 jobs created in this sector in the United States alone since at least 2010. Then you have the millions of indirect positions that contribute to local economies that are present because of this technology. As we begin to work toward less dependence on natural gas, coal, and oil, lowering corporate carbon footprints will create a higher priority for jobs that are familiar with this resource.
9. We have the option to produce micro-stations with this resource.
During the development of the U.S. West, many families had windmills installed on their property as a way to pump water from the ground. These micro-stations created an infrastructure where the needed resources for survival were available on their property. We are taking this approach today with solar, installing rooftop panels that contribute to the power generation needs of each community. We’ll always have a need for large stations that produce several megawatts of power, but renewables allow us to focus on individual providers at the same time.
This advantage also gives us the opportunity to reduce the amount of waste that occurs in the alternative energy sector.
List of the Disadvantages of Alternative Energy
1. Some forms of alternative energy still produce pollutants.
Geothermal energy is considered one of the cleanest forms of energy available today. If the resource is correctly installed, then it won’t produce harmful byproducts. Holes are drilled into the region so that water can come into contact with hot rocks. Then the purified steam shoots up to drive turbines that produce energy.
If this work is done incorrectly, then geothermal energy can still produce pollutants. It is even possible that an improper drilling method could release hazardous gases or minerals. Even solar power requires the consumption of fossil fuels to the point where a net carbon dioxide load doesn’t occur until years afterward.
2. Many forms of alternative energy are not continuous.
One of the primary disadvantages of alternative energy is that it is only available when the providing resource is present in the environment. Solar power only works when the sun is shining. Wind power is possible if there is air movement. Since it is an intermittent resource, we must develop storage options that allow us to continue having energy access until it is present locally once again. That means we must still go through the manufacturing process with fossil fuels to create the items needed to supply us with power.
3. Alternative energy resources can adversely impact nature.
Hydroelectricity becomes possible when a waterway gets dammed to let the water flow in ways that encourage the spinning of turbines. Hoover Dam might be an impressive engineering feat, but its creation of Lake Mead dramatically changed the landscape of the region. At its maximum capacity, the lake is over 112 miles long, 532 feet at its deepest point, and covers 247 square miles of surface area. It may create new habitats, but the work also destroyed the existing ones.
Wind energy can be problematic because bats and birds can fly into the turbines as they spin. Solar energy sometimes requires mercury in the creation of the panels that collect sunshine or thermal resources. These adverse impacts aren’t always considered even when calling these approaches “environmentally friendly.”
4. Cost is an important factor to consider with alternative energy.
There are several different types of wind energy that we can produce today. Some of the most common options are offshore, utility-scale, and distributed. The placement of the turbines to collect this resource can make construction costs up to 50% more expensive than nuclear energy. It is also 90% more than the generators that operate off of fossil fuels.
That means it can take several billion dollars to create and install some alternative energy resources. Despite the issues that nuclear can sometimes cause, the operating costs help to keep expenses lower for families while providing a reliable source of energy for large communities.
5. The logistics of alternative energy installations can be challenging to meet.
Imagine that you need to build a single turbine to collect wind energy. You’re going to be putting together a tower that is up to 20 stories tall. The blades that will spin to collect the wind might be over 60 meters in length. That means you need to have large trucks available that can transport these items to the build site. Transporting these items in rural areas can be a logistical nightmare.
This issue also applies to other forms of alternative energy. According to the Bureau of Reclamation, it took over five years to build Hoover Dam. The ornaments and towers rise 40 feet above the crest with an installation that weighs 6.6 million tons. There were 21,000 people who worked on the project, with the official number of fatalities listed at 96.
6. Some alternative energies require high levels of water consumption.
Many of the bio-based alternative energies that we use today require more water than what is needed to produce fossil fuels. Sugarcane and algae might provide multiple crops per year, but it also requires growth in specific ways to reduce evaporation losses. We also need steam to produce geothermal energy, while hydroelectricity comes directly from water movement. We can reduce our consumption levels by recycling the liquid that we don’t use to create power, but it will not disappear entirely.
The only solution here is to use a resource like wind power that doesn’t require a lot of water in the manufacturing process.
7. We use more fertilizers when producing alternative energy items.
The amount of fertilizer used to produce alternative energy products continues to grow. Over 15 million metric tons of it is necessary to create enough algae to meet today’s bio-diesel demands. Another 2 million metric tons of phosphorus is also required. We need these items to produce corn, sugarcane, and other crops that become the foundation of biofuels as well. When farmers apply these items consistently, then the threat of runoff into our water supply is something that shouldn’t be ignored.
Rivers, lakes, and streams can become highly toxic when the fertilizers applied around them create imbalances in the natural habitat.
8. The infrastructure is vulnerable to environmental changes.
Wind turbines don’t spin when the air isn’t moving past the equipment. They also don’t operate when wind speeds are too fast for their capabilities. Some locations are only using 50% of their true potential because of how quick the wind blows by the turbine.
Solar energy doesn’t produce results if clouds block the rays of the sun. Thermal energy collectors can reduce this disadvantage somewhat, but it won’t eliminate things entirely. We might face issues with fossil fuel depletion, but climate change issues could reduce our potential resources in a similar way.
9. Alternative energies can struggle to produce enough power.
Most forms of alternative energy cannot provide a comparable amount of power to what we create using fossil fuels. Even if we can maximize production every day, the scope of a solar panel farm or a hillside filled with wind turbines cannot compete with a coal-fired power plant, natural gas, or nuclear power generation. We might still have options to use some of the land for our needs that aren’t possible with traditional generation technologies, but we struggle to produce enough power due to the intermittent nature of most resources in this category.
Even in Europe where alternative energy is a top priority, it represents only 17.5% of the total power consumed.
There is enough sunshine hitting our planet every day that collecting it through solar panels could result in an entire year’s worth of supplies. Wind energy is present in every country on our planet. Several spots are viable development areas for geothermal or hydroelectric resources.
Critics say that the energy profile of these resources is different than what our current infrastructure supports. The same could be said of the fossil fuels that were once considered an alternative resource. Whalers lost jobs when we switched from whale oil to petroleum. Lumberjacks were out of work when the world discovered the benefits of coal.
The advantages and disadvantages of alternative energy show us that we must be willing to evolve our perspectives. We cannot turn a blind eye to the potential damage that we cause our planet in our need for energy. By reducing our impact without significant changes to our lifestyle, it is possible to make solar, wind, and other choices the new standard moving forward.
Keith Miller has over 25 years experience as a CEO and serial entrepreneur. As an entreprenuer, he has founded several multi-million dollar companies. As a writer, Keith's work has been mentioned in CIO Magazine, Workable, BizTech, and The Charlotte Observer. If you have any questions about the content of this blog post, then please send our content editing team a message here.