Alternative energy is energy that does not come from fossil fuels, and thus produces little to no greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide (CO2). This means that energy produced from alternative sources does not contribute to the greenhouse effect that causes climate change. You can explore CO2 emissions using the MapMaker Interactive here.

These energy sources are referred to as “alternative” because they represent the alternative to coal, oil, and natural gas, which have been the most common sources of energy since the Industrial Revolution. These fossil fuels emit high levels of CO2 when burned to produce energy and electricity. Alternative energy, however, should not be confused with renewable energy, although many renewable energy sources can also be considered alternative. Solar power, for example, is both renewable and alternative because it will always be abundant and it emits no greenhouse gases. Nuclear power, however, is alternative but not renewable, since it uses uranium, a finite resource. Learn more about renewable energy using the MapMaker Interactive here.

This map shows the average percentage of a country’s total energy use that came from alternative sources between the years 2006-2010. Alternative energy here includes hydroelectric energy, solar energy, geothermal energy, wind energy, nuclear energy, and biomass energy. The data come from the World Bank. It is important to note that while the World Bank considers nuclear energy an alternative energy source, not all energy policy experts agree on how to categorize nuclear energy.

  1. Why do you think there is a debate over whether nuclear energy is a true alternative energy source?

    • Answer

      Many advocates of renewable and alternative energies do not categorize nuclear energy as an alternative source because of the hazardous waste byproducts it produces, which then have to be stored. In this way, it is not a completely non-polluting energy source. However, nuclear energy produces little to no greenhouse gases, unlike fossil fuels. The debate continues: organizations like the World Bank have categorized nuclear energy as an alternative energy, while the International Renewable Energy Agency maintains that it is not.

  2. Based on what you see in the MapMaker Interactive, which region of the world gets the most of its energy from alternative sources? Which region gets the least?

    • Answer

      Europe gets the most of its energy from alternative sources. European countries make up eight of the top ten and fourteen of the top twenty countries that utilize the most alternative energy sources. The most common alternative energy sources in Europe are hydroelectric and nuclear. The Middle East gets the least amount of its energy from alternative energy sources. Nine countries in the Middle East get 0% of their energy from alternative sources.

  3. What factors enable a country to get a significant portion of its energy from alternative energy sources?

    • Answer

      A strong resource base and adequate technology are the most important factors that allow a country to get its energy from alternative sources. The mountainous country of Tajikistan, for example, which got 59% of its energy from alternative sources in 2009, has a dense network of alpine lakes and rivers. The Sangtuda 1 Power Plant, located on the Vakhsh River, produces about 12% of Tajikistan's total energy on its own.

  • In 2009, Paraguay got 99.45% of its energy from hydroelectricity. The source of this enormous hydroelectric capacity is the Itaipu Dam, the largest hydroelectric facility in the world. The dam is built on the Parana River on the Brazil-Paraguay border.
  • In 2010, Iceland used the equivalent of 16,842 kilograms of oil per person, the highest per capita energy consumption of any country in the world. However, most of that energy is not coming from oil, because Iceland gets 85% of its energy from alternative sources, including hydroelectric and geothermal.
  • Saudi Arabia is the only country in the G-20 group of major economies that gets less than 1% of its energy from alternative sources. A major oil exporter, Saudi Arabia gets 100% of its energy from fossil fuels.
  • In 1980, only three countries—Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland—got more than 30% of their energy from alternative sources, including nuclear energy. In 2009, an additional seven countries got more than 30% of their energy from alternative sources. These were Paraguay, Tajikistan, France, Sweden, Costa Rica, Lithuania, and Armenia.
abundant
Adjective

in large amounts.

biomass energy
Noun

renewable energy derived from living or recently living organisms, mostly plants.

carbon dioxide
Noun

greenhouse gas produced by animals during respiration and used by plants during photosynthesis. Carbon dioxide is also the byproduct of burning fossil fuels.

Noun

gradual changes in all the interconnected weather elements on our planet.

Noun

dark, solid fossil fuel mined from the earth.

emit
Verb

to give off or send out.

finite
Adjective

limited and not renewable.

fossil fuel
Noun

coal, oil, or natural gas. Fossil fuels formed from the remains of ancient plants and animals.

G-20
Noun

group of bankers and finance ministers representing the world's top 20 economies (19 nations and the European Union). Also called the Group of 20.

Noun

heat energy generated within the Earth.

Noun

phenomenon where gases allow sunlight to enter Earth's atmosphere but make it difficult for heat to escape.

greenhouse gas
Noun

gas in the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide, methane, water vapor, and ozone, that absorbs solar heat reflected by the surface of the Earth, warming the atmosphere.

Noun

energy generated by moving water converted to electricity. Also known as hydroelectricity.

Industrial Revolution
Noun

change in economic and social activities, beginning in the 18th century, brought by the replacement of hand tools with machinery and mass production.

Itaipu Dam
Noun

most powerful hydroelectric dam in the world, spanning the Parana River between Paraguay and Brazil.

Noun

type of fossil fuel made up mostly of the gas methane.

Noun

energy released by reactions among the nuclei of atoms.

oil
Noun

fossil fuel formed from the remains of marine plants and animals. Also known as petroleum or crude oil.

renewable energy
Noun

energy obtained from sources that are virtually inexhaustible and replenish naturally over small time scales relative to the human life span.

resource base
Noun

the available supply of goods, materials, or services in a specific place at a specific time.

solar power
Noun

rate of producing, transferring, or using solar energy.

uranium
Noun

chemical element with the symbol U. Fuel used to produce nuclear energy.

Noun

kinetic energy produced by the movement of air, able to be converted to mechanical power.