The production, transportation and consumption of alternative energy represent a burgeoning market for the electrical contracting industry. It will provide growth and diversification opportunities for all electrical segments of construction, including both utility and inside electrical contracting firms as well as those specializing in communications and control systems. Investment in alternative-energy production facilities, including central plants and distributed generation installations, will continue to grow in response to the greening of the U.S. economy brought about by our collective concern for the environment, the economy and energy security. Federal, state and local governments will continue to drive investment through mandatory alternative-energy requirements, financial incentives, and research and development grants designed to level the playing field between alternative-energy sources and traditional fossil fuels.

Opportunities for electrical contractors (ECs) in the emerging market span the entire supply chain, whether production is centralized, due to economies of scale in the case of a utility concentrated solar thermal power plant, or distributed, as in the case of a building-integrated photovoltaic installation.

The term “alternative energy” has many definitions that either include or exclude various energy sources or energy-producing technologies. The modifier “alternative” is used to distinguish those energy sources from traditional sources that are commonly used today to meet our growing energy needs. Traditional energy always includes sources from the direct combustion of fossil fuels and sometimes includes nuclear energy and large-scale hydro development. The definition of alternative energy typically depends on the context in which the term is used and whether the focus is on economic, environmental, energy security or some combination of these drivers.

Broadly defined, alternative energy is any energy source or energy-producing technology that is used as an alternative to the fossil fuel production, which includes oil and its derivatives, natural gas and coal. The electrical contracting industry and individual firms should use this broad definition to analyze and plan for the emerging alternative-energy market because it addresses the three primary market drivers, agrees with the definition of alternative energy in most federal and state legislation, and does not exclude any alternative sources or technologies that are either currently commercially available or in the research and development stage. This broad definition keeps the door open to not just renewable energy but also nuclear and hydroelectric energy production as well as the clean use of coal through carbon capture and sequestration, coal gasification and other clean technologies.

In addition to energy production, this broad definition of alternative energy also includes technologies that result in energy conservation and efficiency, which are alternatives to the fossil-fuel-related production of energy. Reducing the demand for power and energy through energy conservation and efficiency is sometimes referred to as producing “negawatts.” Producing negawatts is the most efficient and expedient way to begin addressing the environmental, economic and energy security issues facing the United States today.

Energy conservation and efficiency represents a huge market for the EC. Producing negawatts includes installing advanced controls for new high-performance buildings and relighting existing buildings with energy-efficient luminaires and controls by inside ECs.

For the utility EC, increasing the efficiency of moving wind energy from remote wind farm sites to urban load centers includes the construction of a 765-kilovolt transmission grid overlay that spans the United States. In addition, improving grid efficiency includes the construction of direct-current ties that link the Eastern, Western and Texas Interconnections to the North American power grids to facilitate energy exchange and increase system reliability throughout the continent.

What about renewables?

Renewable energy and alternative energy are sometimes used interchangeably within the strict context of the environment. However, renewable energy is really a subset of alternative energy when it is defined broadly. Renewable energy only includes energy that is obtained from renewable resources, such as wind, solar, hydro, geothermal and biomass. A renewable resource is one that is replenished, replaced or grown at a rate that exceeds its depletion and is, therefore, sustainable.

Renewable-energy projects, such as PV systems, wind farms, low-head hydroelectric plants, and other similar projects will be growth markets for ECs. However, focusing on renewable-energy technologies to the exclusion of all of the other energy sources and technologies encompassed by alternative energy will result in missing the broader market and a lot of future opportunities.

In future planning, the electrical contracting industry and firms should view broadly the emerging alternative-energy market and all of the energy sources and technologies that it will encompass.

GLAVINICH is an associate professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering at the University of Kansas. He can be reached at 785.864.3435 and tglavinich@ku.edu.