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An alternator is the base of the charging system of your car. Not only is it integral to all of the electric systems of your car - the radio, the lights, the fan etc. - it also keeps your battery charged. When cars were first built, car manufacturers actually used small generators for their electical systems. Alternators offer more efficient power and they are also safer. When your car alternator fails, so does your car as your battery is completely depleted.
When your battery light goes on, it may be the battery, but 9 times out of 10 it has something to do with a failing alternator. For newer cars, a mechanic is almost always necessary for a swap, but that shouldn't stop you from buying your car parts yourself. By shopping around on car parts websites, you may be able to get the part for less money and just provide it for your mechanic.