Alternate means "by turns;" alternative means "offering a choice." Both imply two kinds or things. Alternation is the process of two things following one another regularly by turns (as night and day); an alternative is a choice of two things, the acceptance of one implying the rejection of the other. Related: Alternacy.
1550s, "occurring or acting by turns, one after the other," present-participle adjective from alternate (v.). Electrical alternating current is recorded from 1839, an electrical current which flows alternately in opposite directions without interruption.