Updated: Nov 28, 2022
Alternative energy refers to the types of energy collected from renewable sources rather than fossil fuels (petroleum, coal, natural gas) and nuclear power. Since 2000, alternative energy technologies have contributed to significant growth in the US’ overall energy consumption sourced from renewables, from 6.2% to 12.4% (as of April 2022). This equals 12.16 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu) out of total consumption of 97.33 quadrillion Btu.
As the world transitions to a low-carbon energy future, the focus is on sourcing more energy from alternative energy technologies and ensuring greater efficiency in our energy consumption. Both of these important steps are central to the green smart grids being implemented around the world.
This blog will look at the best alternative energy technologies and how much they can contribute to decarbonizing our energy consumption.
The Best Alternative Energy Technologies
Wind: Offshore and onshore wind power have been the largest areas of recent growth in alternative energy technologies. This is due to the growth in turbine size and the vast potential expansion of offshore wind energy generation through static and floating turbines. Some countries, such as Denmark and Ireland, already exploit wind as an alternative energy technology quite successfully. In the US, wind currently makes up 9% of total electricity but is growing rapidly, accounting for 32% of total capacity growth in 2021. Additionally, the industry supports 120,000 jobs across the country.
The downsides of wind as an alternative energy technology are that wind strength can vary significantly, especially during the summer. In addition, without adequate storage capacity, any excess energy produced by wind is lost.
Solar: Solar energy is already one of the most significant contributors to the global energy mix from alternative energy technologies. Although it only makes up 12% of the alternative energy input in the US, with a capacity of 95,000MW, this is still the 2nd best input of major economies in the world. For example, China has invested significantly in photovoltaic technology and installing capacity and has a capacity of 306 MW, or 30% of energy capacity sourced from alternative energy technologies.
There are disadvantages to solar power in that it needs the sun’s rays to generate energy through photovoltaic cells. This means it is not an efficient alternative energy technology choice in certain areas, like northern Europe or the north-western US, which receive heavy cloud cover. However, advances in photovoltaic technology, such as lightweight polymers and fluorescent coating, are improving performance. At the same time, costs are also estimated to continue to fall by at least 30% by 2030.
Biomass: This is a term used for a variety of alternative energy technologies. These technologies can be as diverse as wood burning for electricity production, biofuels used in vehicles, or even waste products such as cooking oil or fuels made from algae. Unsurprisingly, with such a broad scope, they contribute 40% of the energy capacity provided by alternative energy technologies in the US.
While using biomass and engineering alternative energy technologies from natural sources can contribute to reducing the carbon output of energy creation, burning materials, such as wood, still releases particles into the atmosphere.
Hydropower: People have been using hydropower for millennia, dating back to the Romans, who used it on a large scale for the milling of grain. Hydro has thus been one of the most prominent alternative energy technologies in our energy source mix. Hydropower projects can range from immense civil projects such as the Hoover Dam or China’s Three Gorges to domestic generators for those living close to running water. However, the size, cost, and impact of a hydroelectric project (the Three Gorges cost $28.6 billion and used 27 million cubic meters of concrete) mean that it is unlikely to be an alternative energy technology that realistically can replace fossil fuels moving forward.
Hydrogen: Hydrogen’s role in alternative energy technologies is as an energy carrier used to store and move energy derived from other sources. Energy produced from solar or other sources can be used to power electrolysis which separates water into hydrogen and oxygen. This creates fuel cells powered by hydrogen molecules, allowing the storage of energy that may come from remote sources, such as offshore wind platforms or desert solar stations.
Grid Technology Advancements
Reducing our energy systems' carbon output doesn't just depend on using carbon-free or reduced alternative energy technologies; it also relies on reducing usage. By improving grid efficiency, we can reduce the wasted energy in the system. The primary vectors of these efficiencies will be through:
Improvements in battery and storage technologies to capture as much energy as possible produced from renewable sources such as wind and solar.
The use of AI and big data to improve production and transmission.
The integration of smart technologies into grids at the transmission and usage end.
For these latter two verticals, the control systems and switchgear deployed will be at the heart of any advanced power generation system. Overhauling control systems to allow for AI integration and greater operator control is essential for efficiencies to be realized, while responsive electrical switchgear at generation and transformer stations will improve reliability and reduce downtime.
Your Partners in a Greener Future
A wide range of alternative energy technologies is already reducing the carbon output of the global energy system. While each has disadvantages, their growth in terms of contribution to the total energy mix is significant. Alongside greener changes in energy sources are the technological advances that will improve our energy systems' production, delivery, and usage. The mechanical components that will facilitate these applications, such as control systems and switchgear, will be critical for these changes.
To ensure the deployment of the best components in tandem with your alternative energy technologies or smart grid applications, you need to work with the best suppliers. At Enercon, we provide component solutions for energy systems worldwide and can create control systems and electrical switchgear to suit virtually any need. Read about our component production or talk to our team to find out more.