Alternative energy is a broad term referring to energy sources promoted as alternatives to those most commonly used. Today a number of carbon neutral sources are being developed and promoted as the key alternative energy sources of the future:
Emphasizing the importance of alternative energy to the US economy, President Barack Obama made this statement discussing his economic recovery plan:
"To finally spark the creation of a clean energy economy, we will double the production of alternative energy in the next three years. We will modernize more than 75% of federal buildings and improve the energy efficiency of two million American homes, saving consumers and taxpayers billions on our energy bills. In the process, we will put Americans to work in new jobs that pay well and can't be outsourced - jobs building solar panels and wind turbines; constructing fuel-efficient cars and buildings; and developing the new energy technologies that will lead to even more jobs, more savings, and a cleaner, safer planet in the bargain."
To be effective, alternative energy has always required a cooperative effort between government, industry, and consumers. Because of the scale of the energy issue, and its impact on the economy, government investment, oversight, and planning are essential to an efficient energy market.
Alternative energy also relies on the government to provide investment in new infrastructure. Upgrades to the national electrical grid, known as the SmartGrid, will ensure that huge wind farms in the mid-west, and and solar electric generation projects in the deserts, can distribute their power to the cities where it is most needed.
Shifts from one source of energy to "alternative" sources have occurred numerous times over human history. Two transitions, from wood to soft coal, and from whale oil to petroleum were driven by depletion of the main fuel source. Simple economics dictated that as the main fuel source became scarce, driving prices higher, alternatives became more attractive. Crude oil, our primary source of energy today, is exhibiting characteristics of depletion as described by the peak oil theory, and is driving our current move to alternatives.
Today alternative energy demand is growing for many reasons. Prices of crude oil have fluctuated wildly in the past few years causing gasoline prices to triple to the $5 per gallon mark. This caused average Americans to think about energy in ways they hadn't since the last "oil shock" in the 70's, which caused shortages and rapid price increases. A spirit of nationalism combined with a cry for energy independence has boosted interest in local, renewable, alternative energy sources like solar and wind. Today, energy from the sun and wind holds a very small percentage of US energy output, but is now at a tipping point. Higher prices for crude oil and governmental incentives for alternatives are accelerating the adoption of clean energy. In some markets the price of alternatives (wind and solar) are now below the price of traditional fossil fuel sources like coal. This trend is expected to continue as innovation in the renewable energy sector takes off.
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