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“Alternative Energy”-A Question of Terminology?

As a Texas oil and gas attorney, I have authored a series of articles on this site concerning the pros and cons of alternative energy. As I prepared to return to the topic, I began to ponder a more general question. When we use the phrase “alternative energy” or “alternative fuels,” what exactly do we mean? Any lawyer will tell you that words have very precise meanings: when you are using a word, it is very important that you are clear what you mean when you use that word. Let us avoid the error of the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, who made words mean anything he chose! Therefore, in writing about alternative energy, I have to ask two important questions: first, an alternative to what? And secondly, what alternative?

The dictionary defines alternative in one usage as “different from the usual or conventional.” So when we speak of alternative energy, we are talking about sources of energy different from the usual or conventional sources. But “usual or conventional sources” can mean different things.

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Alternative energy is often spoken of in relation to oil. With every spike in the price of oil and the resulting rise in the price of gasoline, the usual cries are heard: we are too dependent on imported oil, our economy is too vulnerable to increases in energy costs as a result of that dependence, and for our own economic and national security we need to reduce that dependence. The natural choice, at least in the near future, would be to develop our own domestic sources of oil. That choice, however, has been to date choked off because of environmental concerns: exploration in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge was rejected by Congress, and the moratorium on new oil exploration in the Gulf imposed by the Obama administration after the Deepwater Horizon spill are the two most prominent examples of the roadblocks placed by environmentalists and their allies in Washington. So, it would seem that, for some, alternative energy does not mean using alternative sources for the current dominant energy source of oil.

In addition to developing new sources of oil, alternative energy can mean expanding the use of existing sources of energy. Three such sources are coal, natural gas, and nuclear power. Each has their advocates. Coal is still plentiful in the United States, and efforts are underway to develop clean coal technology designed to reduce emissions claimed to contribute to man-made global warming. Natural gas is also plentiful, given current estimates of reserves, and it is also the cleanest burning of the fossil fuels with almost no greenhouse gas emissions compared to coal or oil. Finally, in spite of safety concerns over the last several decades, nuclear energy has gained it’s advocates as the energy source least likely to contribute to global warming. All three sources are proven technologies and have the production and delivery infrastructure in place to reduce oil’s percentage of America’s energy production. But none of them are particularly popular among environmentalists who advocate the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions; coal and natural gas are still fossil fuels that are non-renewable and are claimed to exact a toll on the environment in their production and use. As far as nuclear energy-well, the vast majority of environmentalists have nothing good to say, pointing to issues involving waste disposal and fears of some catastrophic Chernobyl-type disaster. These, then, are not the alternatives that advocates of alternative energy intend when they speak of alternative energy.

What, then, are the alternatives acceptable to the main advocates of alternative energy? The key words to remember are “renewable” and “green.” Acceptable alternatives are those that can be reproduced or, ideally, can never run out. In addition, they cannot be based on any source that could possibly harm the environment. That automatically excludes hydroelectric power, which is renewable and uses existing technology, but involves altering the physical environment and the habitats of various forms of wildlife (remember the story of the Snail Darter?). So, what’s left? Solar power and wind power. These two (along with ethanol to a lesser extent) are the gold standard of acceptable alternatives. Both are renewable and are sources that appear to do no harm to the environment.

Other than being renewable and green, what else to solar and wind have in common? What do they share that make them impractical as alternatives to fossil fuels? We’ll look at those questions over the next few weeks.