Non Renewable Energy Sources

Believe it or not, plants and animals from millions of years ago are now being used to power our lights, fuel our cars, and heat our homes today. These are called fossil fuels and are one of the most common types of non-renewable energy sources. Non-renewable energy sources have been used by humans for centuries and are critical to understanding how our modern world functions.

Non Renewable Energy Sources Non Renewable Energy Sources

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Table of contents

    Non-renewable energy sources definition

    Non-renewable energy sources are usually dug up from the ground and are in limited supply. In contrast to renewable energy sources, every time non-renewable energy sources are used, we have less and less of them.

    An energy source is non-renewable if when used, the total supply of that resource goes down and cannot be replaced quickly (i.e. in our lifetime.)

    Examples of non-renewable energy sources

    Let's take a look at the different examples of non-renewable energy sources.

    Coal

    Coal is a rock typically found deep in the earth made from natural materials that have been pressed together over millions of years. Because coal is from ancient living things, it’s what we call a fossil fuel. Coal is then burned for its energy which can be used to heat things like ovens, but that’s rarely done anymore. Most commonly, coal is burned in power plants to heat water into steam, which then turn machines called turbines which generate electricity.

    Natural gas

    Like coal, natural gas is also a fossil fuel, except in a gas form instead of a solid one. Natural gas has no colour or smell, but many places add a scent to it so it can more easily be detected. Being highly flammable, natural gas is used in several ways to harness its energy. Firstly, the heat it makes can be used directly to heat buildings and water. You may have also used a gas stove before to cook. Secondly, power plants can use natural gas to generate electricity as well. Finally, natural gas can actually be concentrated or turned into a liquid and used to power vehicles like cars and boats.

    Non renewable energy sources natural gas burner StudySmarterFig. 1 - a stove burner using natural gas

    Oil

    Oil, also known as petroleum, is a liquid taken from the ground and is a fossil fuel. Oil in its raw, natural form is rarely used and has to be turned into something else to be most beneficial. Petrol, diesel, and jet fuel are all examples of products made from oil and are used to power everything from cars to planes and trains.

    It’s no secret that oil has been the cause of major conflicts worldwide. Such a precious resource is not found everywhere in the world, so some countries end up with more control of it than others. One organization plays a huge role in the amount of oil that gets shipped around the world, it’s called the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC for short. OPEC consists of most of the largest oil-producing countries on the planet, and makes decisions about how much oil to produce, having a massive effect on the price of oil.

    Nuclear

    Unique from the other examples of non-renewable energy sources we’ve discussed, nuclear energy is not a fossil fuel. Nuclear power takes the energy from nuclear reactions, which are when very tiny particles collide or break down. These reactions create heat used to generate electricity.

    Non renewable energy sources nuclear power plant StudySmarterFig. 2 - While it looks like smoke, nuclear power plants mostly just emit steam

    Advantages of non-renewable energy sources

    Non-renewable energy sources get a lot of (deserved) bad press. However, there are many advantages to using non-renewable energy sources.

    Cost

    Of course, everything costs money and non-renewable energy sources are no exception to that. However, a lot of the cost advantages of non-renewable energy sources are in comparison to renewable energy sources. For most of the twentieth century, the emphasis was put on building up non-renewable energy, and there is an already existing supply of coal plants, nuclear plants, and natural gas plants that are currently working. With this in mind, it's easy to see why investing money into renewable energy can seem unappetizing when there are existing non-renewable power plants and the infrastructure to support it already in place. So, for the most part, using non-renewable energy is a cost-effective solution for many.

    Dependability

    Since non-renewable energy sources are not impacted by factors like the wind and sun, they can function whenever energy is in demand by the people. Additionally, they are able to increase or decrease power production depending on how much is actually needed, meaning less electricity gets wasted.

    Limitations of non-renewable energy sources

    Let's take a look at the limitations of non-renewable energy sources:

    Limited supply

    There’s no avoiding the simple fact that non-renewable energy sources are limited. Eventually, a point will come where there aren’t enough resources available, or it becomes too costly to get what remains in the ground or below the sea floor. With the global population increasing and demand for energy always going up, the amount of coal, oil, natural gas, and radioactive materials we have available will get used up more quickly.

    Impacted by geopolitics

    The global supply of non-renewable energy sources is not evenly distributed. Some countries control more and some less. Political disagreements can lead nations to use their access to certain energy resources as a tool and restrict supplies to other countries.

    In 1973, Arab countries put an oil embargo on dozens of countries that supported Israel, a country the Arab nations conflicted with. This meant they decided to stop the sale of oil to the United Kingdom, United States, and several other Israel-supporting countries. Since these countries relied so heavily on oil from the Arab world, there were massive shortages of fuel, causing economic damage.

    Environmental impact of non-renewable energy sources

    Perhaps one of the biggest drawbacks to non-renewable energy sources is their impact on the environment.

    Pollution

    The burning of fossil fuels creates large amounts of pollution, harming the health of humans and the environment. Some dirtier forms of coal are particularly bad, releasing tiny particles and chemicals into the air, poisoning the water and leading to lung issues in humans. Vehicles burning diesel and petrol are much the same, reducing the air quality in cities particularly. Nuclear power plants produce radioactive waste that is dangerous to humans and the environment if not safely stored.

    Non renewable energy sources power plant pollution StudySmarterFig. 3 - The burning of fossil fuels produces harmful pollutants

    Greenhouse gas emissions

    The burning of fossil fuels releases greenhouse gasses, which are the driving force behind climate change. With the threat of climate change and its devastating effects looming larger and larger, it’s essential to shift away from non-renewable energy sources like fossil fuels. Coal power plants alone are responsible for roughly a fifth of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.1 It’s important to note, however, that nuclear energy, while being non-renewable, does not emit greenhouse gasses.

    Habitat destruction

    The digging up of coal from the ground, building large power plants, and storing nuclear waste are all ways in which non-renewable energy sources can disrupt where plants and animals live. These disturbances to natural habitats lead to animal and plant species dying out and the ecosystems becoming even more fragile.

    Difference between renewable and non-renewable energy sources

    The primary difference between renewable and non-renewable energy sources is that renewable sources are unlimited while non-renewable sources can run out. Renewable energy sources use things that are limitless, like the sun and wind to generate electricity. See our article on Renewable Energy Sources to learn more!


    References

    1. International Energy Agency, "It’s critical to tackle coal emissions", 2021
    Frequently Asked Questions about Non Renewable Energy Sources

    What is a non-renewable source of energy? 


    An energy source is non-renewable when the supply of that resource goes down as it is used and can’t be replenished.


    What are the 7 types of non-renewable energy? 



    While there are many different types of non-renewable energy, there are only four of them:

    • Coal

    • Natural gas

    • Petroleum (petrol and diesel)

    • Nuclear

    What are examples of non-renewable energy sources?

    Some examples of non-renewable energy sources are coal, natural gas, petroleum, and nuclear energy.

    What are the differences between renewable and non-renewable energy?

    The biggest difference between renewable and non-renewable energy is that renewable energy does not run out while non-renewable energy is depleted as it is used. Non-renewable energy is also far more harmful to the environment and a major contributor to climate change.

    How are non-renewable energy resources harmful to the environment?

    Non-renewable energy resources release harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, creating the greenhouse effect which causes global warming. 

    Non-renewable energy sources are also harmful pollutants and lead to habitat destruction.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of the following are a non-renewable energy source?

    Which of the following are products that can be made from oil (petroleum)?

    True or false: the burning of coal for energy is the fifth largest source of greenhouse gas emissions

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