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.
Why do you think there is a debate over whether nuclear energy is a true alternative energy source?
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?
What factors enable a country to get a significant portion of its energy from alternative energy sources?
- 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.
- National Geographic Education: How Iceland Uses Geothermal Energy
- National Geographic Education: Wild Winds—Lake Turkana Wind Power Aims to Create Electricity for Kenya
- Scientific American: One Hot Island—Iceland’s Renewable Geothermal Power
- New York Times: Tajikistan Hopes Water Will Power Its Ambitions
Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry 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.
climate change Noun
gradual changes in all the interconnected weather elements on our planet.
Encyclopedic Entry: climate change coal Noun
dark, solid fossil fuel mined from the earth.
to give off or send out.
limited and not renewable.
fossil fuel Noun
coal, oil, or natural gas. Fossil fuels formed from the remains of ancient plants and animals.
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.
geothermal energy Noun
heat energy generated within the Earth.
greenhouse effect Noun
phenomenon where gases allow sunlight to enter Earth's atmosphere but make it difficult for heat to escape.
Encyclopedic Entry: greenhouse effect 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.
hydroelectric energy Noun
energy generated by moving water converted to electricity. Also known as hydroelectricity.
Encyclopedic Entry: hydroelectric energy 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.
natural gas Noun
type of fossil fuel made up mostly of the gas methane.
Encyclopedic Entry: natural gas nuclear energy Noun
energy released by reactions among the nuclei of atoms.
Encyclopedic Entry: nuclear energy 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.
chemical element with the symbol U. Fuel used to produce nuclear energy.
wind energy Noun
kinetic energy produced by the movement of air, able to be converted to mechanical power.