By the Mother Earth News editors
WHAT IS ALTERNATIVE ENERGY?
To move us away from dependence upon non-renewable oil, gas and coal, and high-risk nuclear power, alternative energy systems utilize renewable resources for electricity, heating, cooling and transportation. Alternative energy also encompasses efforts to use nonrenewable natural resources in more sustainable, environmentally benign ways.
WHY SHOULD WE SWITCH TO ALTERNATIVE SOURCES OF ENERGY?
The more we rely on renewable energy, the less dependent we are on the fragile electric power grid and nonrenewable, polluting fossil fuels. With world oil and gas supplies dwindling, experts estimate that the costs of gas, electricity and other conventional energy sources will increase significantly in the coming years. Some fear rising energy costs will severely disrupt the world economy.
There are many ways to create and use energy efficiently and sustainably, and the technology to do so is becoming more available and affordable than ever. In 2004, for example, shares of the world's 24 publicly traded solar companies soared nearly 185 percent. Experts predict the solar photovoltaics (PV) market will grow from $7 billion to $30 billion by 2010. Even some national home improvement stores are beginning to sell alternative energy systems for home use.
Financial Incentives and Rebates
Buying a renewable energy system is more affordable than ever thanks to rebates, tax breaks (personal tax credits and property tax exemptions) and low-interest loans from state governments, local utilities and even private companies. Depending on where you live, renewable energy subsidies can reduce the cost of a wind- or solar- powered system by more than half of the total expense. In Rhode Island, for example, residents can receive a rebate for up to 50 percent of the cost of a photovoltaic (PV) system. In other states, such as New Jersey, rebates of up to 70 percent of system costs are available. California and Illinois will reimburse up to 60 percent of your wind or solar system costs.
As natural gas and oil prices rise and electric grid problems mount, an increasing number of cities and states are setting ambitious targets for boosting renewable energy production. New programs continue to pop up across the nation -- visit www.dsireusa.org (the Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy) to learn more about what's available in your area.
WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENT SOURCES OF ALTERNATIVE ENERGY?
Some of the ways we can tap alternative, renewable sources of energy include our efforts to generate power, heat and cool our homes, heat our water, cook our food, and get around.
The technology to generate electric power from sources other than coal and petroleum is rapidly advancing. A few of these methods are wind energy; micro-hydroelectric power; and active solar power, including crystalline and thin-film photovoltaics (PV). These alternative system can be installed 'off the grid' or connected to the utility company ('grid-tied').
Sustainable means of heating and cooling homes include passive solar power systems (with attention to site orientation, south-facing windows, thermal mass and landscaping); geothermal heat pumps (both air-source and ground-source); biodiesel for home heat; heating water with solar collectors; and traditional wood heating.
Alternative transportation has become an important issue now that the price of oil has surged to over $50 a barrel. The technology to build gas-electric hybrid automobiles that are both more energy-efficient and less dependent on gasoline is quickly becoming mainstream, and the incentives to purchase these cars include federal tax breaks and a substantial payback in savings at the gas pump.