Alternatives to Fossil Fuels: An overview

June 24, 2015
Wind farm in central Montana. Photo SB Davis

Wind farm in central Montana. Photo SB Davis

Recently I discussed the G-7 pledge to decarbonize our economies by 2100. As a follow up let’s talk about energy sources and fuels able to take the place of carbon-based ones like coal, crude oil, and natural gas. Remember we have to find something that will power our automobiles and trucks, heat our homes and power our cities. Whatever it is must be non-polluting, not produce greenhouse gases, be abundant, cheap and easy to produce, transport and store.


The best candidate is hydrogen the most abundant element in the universe. Hydrogen fuel cells are already in use powering vehicles, cars, trucks and buses. There are rumours in the automotive world BMW is planning to introduce a hydrogen powered car in the near future.

The challenge is the ability to produce, transport and store hydrogen safely and cheaply. In the United States the Department of Energy (DOE) has been conducting feasibility studies for many years into the use of hydrogen as a fuel and energy source that could replace fossil fuels. In Canada, and British Columbia in particular, there are buses and cars being operated using hydrogen fuel cells as the power source.

The biggest drawback right now is the lack of infrastructure. There are only a few filling stations dispensing hydrogen for vehicles. Best of all vehicles powered by hydrogen are 100% non-polluting. The by-product is water. However it does take energy to obtain hydrogen.

Nuclear Energy:

Nuclear power generation supplies roughly 20% of the energy needs of the United States today. Energy produced by nuclear means is clean and non-polluting. The major disadvantage is the need for safe, secure long-term storage of the radioactive waste produced.

Solar Power:

Power from our sun has great potential, but technology needs to be developed further to make it a viable source as a replacement. Solar is being used to generate power at many locations around the world. Solar panels are used to heat water and supply power to remote locations.

If all the solar energy the sun bombards our Earth with could be captured it would exceed the world’s energy needs 10,000 times over. It is an inexhaustible supply of free energy, but it has to be captured and stored economically and efficiently.

Wind Power:

Power from the wind is at first glance a viable option, but it is restricted because it is intermittent. The number of wind turbines needed to generate massive amounts of energy is prohibitive. It’s definitely a power source that should be in the mix, but realistically not a great alternative to fossil fuel by itself. The wind turbines are considered unsightly by many and the blades kill many birds.


Hydro-electric, Tidal and Geo-thermal power are all site-specific meaning they can’t be generated everywhere. Also the sources of these types of power are limited. So although good clean, economic sources of energy their use is restricted to local areas.

I believe over the long-term fossil fuels can be largely replaced, but much work remains to be done. These research and feasibility studies must be continued. In parallel with the use of fossil fuels. Society must prepare for the day when we can decarbonize our economies. Our long term future depends on it. Meanwhile fossil fuels are here to stay. We need to use them wisely and reduce their footprint.

G-7 Pledge: No carbon by the year 2100.

June 13, 2015

white-semi-truckThe G-7 or Group of 7 major industrialized nations at their summit this week pledged to reduce the carbon footprint in their economies, and further to completely remove all carbon by the year 2100 or 85 years from now. The G-7 includes Canada, the United States, European countries like Germany, France and the UK, and Asian powerhouse Japan. Eighty-five years sounds like a long time, but think for a moment what no carbon would mean to our society and our lifestyle expectations.

It means no carbon fuels such as gasoline, diesel or jet fuel allowed. Planes, trains and automobiles will no longer exist in our world unless they were powered by non-carbon fuels. That means no coal, no natural gas and no crude oil in any form. They’re all are carbon-based.

Hydrogen, nuclear, solar or wind power are the potential alternatives. Visualize cars and trucks adorned with sails moving on our highways much like the sailors of old. Perhaps solar panels will be much smaller and more efficient by then and drivers will have vehicles constructed of solar panels top to bottom. When the wind dies we’ll be stranded, becalmed like sailors of old, or if it’s cloudy or when night falls drivers will be unable to go further that day.

Electric cars are also an option but remember the power to charge them is generated now by fossil fuels (carbon). Proliferation of electric powered cars means more power to be generated.

Nuclear power is non-carbon but we’d have to develop compact nuclear reactors to power our vehicles. Would we really want millions of nuclear cores traveling down our highways and byways at high speed. Accidents might result in nuclear explosions or at best meltdowns and radioactive releases to the atmosphere on a routine basis. Massive amounts of nuclear waste would be generated as a byproduct.

Hydrogen is a non-carbon fuel. Best of all it can be sourced from water an abundant resource. Water is H2O, two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. Separation is an expensive process today, but could become cheap if there was a demand. The biggest disadvantage to hydrogen is his extreme explosiveness. It is downright dangerous to handle.

boeing-787-dreamliner_100416655_mAirplanes will be drastically smaller and slower powered by solar or wind power. Traveling around the world will take a vast amount of time. Tourism will become localized. Trips to faraway places will be a thing of the past.

Unless a viable non-carbon alternative fuel is discovered between now and 2100, society will be forced to live a slower pace and stick closer to home. The goods we enjoy today that come to us over long distances will no longer be available. As an example fresh fruit and vegetables in the winter will be a thing of the past.

Society will be markedly low-tech. Our high tech society will cease to exist. Carbon based chemicals are a necessary part of our computers and high tech toys and tools. Replacements don’t presently exist for those chemicals derived from carbon.

I’m not a scientist or an inventor, but I have a hard time imagining where the cheap, abundant alternative to carbon-based fuels and chemicals will come from. I’m not saying a complete phase out of carbon-based fuels and chemicals can’t be accomplished, but it’ll take a complete reinvention of our society and its expectations.

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