Electricity is a direct result of electromagnetism, which is considered one of the four fundamentals forces in nature, so I don’t think we are ever going to find an “alternative” to it. But, there are various ways in which we produce electricity and there are many uses of electricity than can be replaced with either the use of other forms of energy or conservation.
The most effective alternative to electric energy is that of conservation, which in theory is “non-use”. Whenever we are successful in “conserving” a resource such as electrical energy, we have gained energy. We have progressed from a condition in which we were using a specific number of electrical units and we have replaced a portion of that quantity with zero units. The difference in units is the amount we have gained from the future “non-use” of that portion of electricity.
Conservation of electricity has many variations. Electricity can be conserved at its source of production by increasing the efficiency of the power plant that produces it. Many power plants, especially older fossil fuel powered plants, are very inefficient, and updating can increase efficiency of production up to 50%, depending on fuel type. Technology is also advancing in the field of heat recovery, which is the last inefficiency of the power plant. Even the most efficient power plant we have at present loses a good deal of energy in the form of heat. The lifespan of power plants is relatively long term and just about any improvement in efficiency will pay off over time, but short term economics and capital considerations often complicate these decisions.
A good deal of electrical energy is also lost during transmission; the long journey from the power plant to homes and businesses. Electrical wires always create “resistance” to the transfer of electrical energy and the further the power must travel, the more electricity is lost again in the form of heat. The eventual move to “super-conductors”, wires that are extremely conductive, will mitigate much of this inefficiency but the scope of the job [virtually replacing all wiring and equipment across the entire nation] and the formidable cost is overwhelming.
This problem could have been avoided. The Federal Government designed and built the bulk of our power generation system and the accompanying “grid” wiring system. If instead, it would have been left to free market solutions, surely competition would have created a much more “localized” system, in which power generation and use is much more closely situated. This would have eliminated the great power losses from transport and favored smaller, more efficient power generation plants. The Government choose giant, centralized power plants and a bulky transmission system that often sends the power thousands of miles from its origin, because it could, not because it would be the best long term solution. Competing interests would have benefited financially from efficiency and following the natural laws of electricity, probably resulting in a more localized and in the long term more cost effective solution.
Once electricity reaches homes and business, efficiency can be increased by using less electricity for the same job. Products such as refrigerators are constantly being made more efficient. The consumer and business owner should remember that “size” is the most determinate factor. Often, a less efficient small refrigerator or air conditioner will use less energy than a highly efficient large one. This is just common sense and can be extrapolated to the size of the house or building itself. Small will generally, if it is sufficient for the task, be the more efficient option and end up using less electricity.
Fluorescent light bulbs need about a third of the energy incandescent bulbs need for the same amount of electricity. Turning lights off when you are not using them uses zero electricity and does not lower your standard of living one bit.
A real “alternative” to electric energy is the use of a substitute fuel when it is possible. There is no logic to heating a building with an electric heat source, such as a “resistance” furnace or baseboards. Although, electrical heat production itself is very efficient, the electricity must first be produced by the same method you could use to heat your building. Power plants are fueled with oil, coal and gas: all fuels that can heat interior space. It makes no sense to produce electricity with fuel, transmit it and then heat your house or building with it. It is always more efficient to heat your building with the original fuel.
The same goes for heating water, it is much more efficient to use fuels to heat water than using the same process described above.
The most efficient “substitute” for electricity in terms of interior space heating and water heating is that of “solar”. It is hard to believe that with all the new construction that has occurred since the energy crisis of the seventies, that so little of it utilizes “solar” principles. We are not speaking of some elaborate, expensive alternative construction techniques here, just some solar common sense. With a bit of low cost planning during new construction, the bulk of the window area can be placed on the southern side of the building, collecting the free solar rays. Likewise, solar water heater panels are very simple and why they are not widespread is a mystery. Neither of these techniques as costly and they both pay a long term reward, free use of the sun’s warmth to heat both living and working space and water.
Harnessing electrical power is one of the foremost advancements humans have ever made. While we will never find a “alternative” for it, there are ways in which we can use less or use other more efficient fuels. In this way, we will not only experience economic benefits but have a smaller impact on the world around us and save some energy for the rest of humanity and those who have yet to be born. Electricity, a result of one of the basic forces of nature, can be bought but it is “owned” by no one!