Real Alternative Energy

“Alternative energy” conjures up the idea of a superior alternative but in practice is used to promote inferior alternatives–namely, solar, wind, and biofuels.

At this point in technological and economic history, those are “alternatives” to coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear, and hydro in the way that wood is an “alternative” to steel and cups attached to strings are “alternatives” to iPhones.

Advocates of “alternative energy” aren’t willing to prove their alternatives on the market–they want to force us to accept an alternative to the market.

That’s why I was happy to read in the Wall Street Journal last week an op-ed by a chemist, Dr. George Olah, seemingly willing to compete with gasoline on the free market. He is trying to do so using methanol, an interesting fuel that can be synthesized from a variety of raw materials–including, Dr. Olah’s choice, CO2. While Dr. Olah’s piece concedes that reducing atmospheric CO2 should be a goal of ours, a view with which I disagree vehemently, the substance of his article argues that CO2-derived methanol can outcompete gasoline.

Methanol also provides higher performance. It has an octane rating of 100, greater than premium gasoline, one reason that pure methanol was used for decades to fuel the race cars at the Indianapolis 500. Yet putting methanol in the gas tank is economical, too. It is significantly cheaper per mile driven than either gasoline or ethanol. Unlike ethanol, methanol does not raise food prices.

These advantages are not limited to cars. Swedish advances in modified diesel engines have opened the way for using methanol in diesel-powered trucks and maritime transport. An independent MIT study in 2011 on “The Future of Natural Gas” led by Ernest Moniz, now the U.S. Energy Secretary, concluded that methanol is the best use of natural or shale gas in transportation.

Like many advocates of particular fuels, Dr. Olah’s case is a little skewed toward his fuel of choice. He neglects to mention, for example, that methanol has half the energy density of oil-based fuels or that it requires extreme care when handling. He also doesn’t explain why previous experiments in methanol, including one in California he cites, failed.

But ultimately, this doesn’t matter. Because he calls for free-market policies in his article, and is apparently willing to compete for our fuel dollars, all the evidence will come out when he offers his alternative and we choose it, or not, based on the merits.

That’s real alternative energy.


Alex Epstein, an energy philosopher, debater, and communications consultant, is Founder and President of the Center for Industrial Progress. Email him here.