Have you ever stopped and asked yourself, “why is it called alternative energy”? A dictionary will describe it as a form of energy obtained from a renewable source. OK, that is how we typically think of alternative energy, as coming from a renewable resource such as wind or solar. So with that definition the question is closed. But, let’s look closer at the word “alternative”. As a noun it will mean that you have a choice, this thing or the other thing – the alternative. As an adjective it means a substitute, as in taking an alternative route to get to your destination.
So what is the “alternative” in alternative energy? Do we have a choice or can we take a substitute for something like coal power. I wonder how often we tend to look at renewable energy sources as being cute but not really a viable option for electricity. Like a substitute that we can take, but the real power is in the coal, gas and nuclear power plants, which they are at the moment. If you think about it, for most Americans, alternative energy is not really an option but rather a good feeling. There is something chic about saying “go solar, yeah, spin wind turbine spin, more of that hydro”. Certainly it is stylish to be in favor of such things but what really happens when you get home and plop down on the couch with the remote in hand and the AC chilling the house? What choice do you have in where your energy comes from? I would say that today, very little. It will come from where it always does for most people and it most likely isn’t being harvested from a solar panel. It’s coming from the big commercial plant on the outskirts of town where it is safely out of sight and out of mind.
So is it really an alternative, or just a choice where we really don’t have a choice? Some utilities will ask you if you want your energy from a green source and at the same time ask you to pay more for it. That is an interesting concept, for you to have the privilege to pay extra for the same electricity that everyone else on your block is getting for less. I guess that is a way for the utility company to say that they tried to implement a wind farm but the consumer just didn’t want it, but at least they tried. Wait, you didn’t have a choice to do anything except volunteer to pay them more money for the same product. Wait, I know, maybe they have a switch that lets them isolate your house from the regular power plant and when they pull that big lever, you start getting only power from renewable energy sources. I don’t know. It sounds cool. “OK guys, the Jones are now on our renewable plan so let’s put up a couple more solar panels.”
It looks like we’ll just have to stick with the mainstream definition for alternative energy, energy obtained from a renewable source. But most commercial grid people aren’t going to have a true alternative just yet. Except for the fact that instead of waiting around for large scale renewable energy power plants, we have people taking the matter into their own hands and installing wind turbines (be careful with this one) in their back yard and attaching solar panels to their roofs. This way you can decide from where your electricity flows.