Alternatives to Fossil Fuels: An overview

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.


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