Reality of Renewables 5: Other Alternatives


At the end of our renewables special we’ll be looking at the alternative ways to fuel our energy addiction. This series has focussed on solar, wind and hydro-electricity with a brief foray into nuclear power as a way to produce clean electricity. However, I have not looked into how we could cleanly power our cars, or heat our homes, not to mention fuel planes, and replace greenhouse gasses in manufacturing processes. Becoming completely fossil fuel independent may yet be a distant dream but the technology is in place to generate electricity from renewable sources, we just need to be brave enough to make the change.


Electric cars are one likely possibility for the future but are not selling well, most likely due to poor propagation of information and lack of monetary incentives. For an average user driving up to 10,000 mile a year, electric cars can save up to £800 in fuel costs. Electric cars are still more expensive to buy, especially the charging devices but government subsidies are available. Plus, electric cars are exempt from road tax and of course are completely emission free (except for the emissions from the fossil fuel power stations that generate the electricity). However, most electric cars have a maximum range of 100 miles before the battery runs out and it can take several hours to fully recharge. One way to overcome this problem is to generate electricity on the go which may be possible if magnets are installed underneath roads and in cars so that as they pass an electric charge is generated. This may only function as a way to boost a car battery, but would still prolong the battery life. Another possibility is to use alternative fuels such as biodiesel, usually generated from rapeseed. Biodiesel is considered emission free but there are complications such as the amount of land dedicated to fuel crops instead of food crops and the higher cost of biodiesel.

Current electric cars are not a solution to the fossil fuel problem as they often rely on electricity generated from fossil fuels, but they do considerably reduce the amount of greenhouse gasses produced. Problems with the limited range and long fuelling times can currently be overcome using hybrid cars which are a good step on the way towards clean cars. Cars are only one of our fuelling problems; how do we fuel our ships, planes and rockets with renewable fuels or will major cutbacks on the roads be enough?

Heating our homes

In the UK alternatives to heating, other than to use electricity generated from renewable energy sources, are limited. In countries close to tectonic plate borders, usually with high volcanic activity, it is possible to use geothermal energy to heat homes. In the USA there are already 77 geothermal plants in use and may pump hot water to the surface to directly heat buildings or electricity can be generated by using steam generated from the subterranean heat to turn turbines. The city of Boise, Idaho uses naturally heated water to heat 55 businesses and is currently expanding across the river to the university. In Iceland nearly 90% of homes and buildings are heated by geothermal energy, even car parks have surfaces heated by geothermal energy to clear snow in the colder months. The city hopes to be a model for other cities thinking of developing geothermal energy sources.

While geothermal may be one way to heat our houses, it is worth thinking about how to retain the heat in the house once it has been generated. Better insulation in the wall’s, window’s and roof is one way to ensure heating efficiency. Another increasingly popular option is using a biomass burner such as a wood burner, although unless you own your own land fuel logs can be expensive.

Why are we reluctant when it comes to renewables?

As always between planning to write and actually completing this series my motivations have changed. There is no doubt that we will run out of fossil fuels, and regardless of cause and consequence the planet is heating up. If we are to sustain the quality of life we have created we must switch to renewable energy sources. The question isn’t how; between solar, wind and hydro we could easily power the planet, neither is it when; we have the technology now, the problem is money. The fossil fuel economy is powerful and profitable, but it is decision time; how much are we willing to sacrifice for fossil fuels?

Unless our governments sincerely commit to a fossil fuel free future, how can we be expected to do the same? Although every contribution to reducing greenhouse gasses is important, unless some major changes are made our individual efforts will be smothered by giant emissions from fossil fuel power stations.

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