How Are Renewable Sources Different From Non-Renewable?

Renewable and non-renewable resources are energy sources used to generate electricity and power. The key difference between them is in replenishment – renewable resources can be replenished naturally over time, while non-renewable resources cannot.

Renewable resources include solar, wind, geothermal, hydroelectric, and biomass energy. They are continuously replenished and will never run out. Sunlight, wind, rainfall, plant growth, and geothermal heat are naturally occurring processes that renew these resources.

Non-renewable resources include fossil fuels like oil, natural gas, and coal. They take millions of years to form naturally so when reserves are depleted, new ones cannot be produced fast enough to replenish them. This makes non-renewables finite – once used up they are gone for good.

Renewable Resources

Renewable resources are energy sources that regenerate naturally over time and will never run out. The main types of renewable resources include:

  • Solar – Solar energy comes directly from the sun and can be harnessed in a few ways. Solar panels (photovoltaics) convert sunlight into electricity, while solar thermal collectors capture heat from the sun.
  • Wind – Wind turbines convert the kinetic energy of wind into mechanical power or electricity. Wind power is one of the fastest growing renewable sources.
  • Hydropower – Hydropower utilizes the energy of flowing water, usually from dams, to generate electricity. It’s one of the oldest and largest renewable sources.
  • Biomass – Biomass refers to plant- and animal-based materials that can be burned to produce energy. Sources include wood, crops, landfill gas, and biofuels.
  • Geothermal – Geothermal energy taps into the natural heat beneath the earth’s surface to produce steam and hot water that can drive turbines and generate electricity.

Because these resources are naturally replenished, they can provide energy indefinitely without being depleted. This makes them very different from finite, non-renewable sources.

Non-Renewable Resources

Non-renewable resources are sources of energy that cannot be easily replenished in a short period of time. The most common non-renewable resources are fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) and nuclear power.

Fossil fuels are formed over hundreds of millions of years from decayed organic material deep underground. We cannot reproduce this process in a way that is practical or sustainable. Once we deplete fossil fuel reserves, they are gone. Fossil fuels currently provide the majority of the world’s energy needs.

Nuclear power is generated from radioactive isotopes like uranium and plutonium. While nuclear power plants do not produce direct carbon emissions, mining and enriching nuclear fuel is energy intensive. Nuclear waste also remains radioactive and hazardous for thousands of years. The limited supply of economical nuclear fuel sources means nuclear is not truly renewable.


One of the main differences between renewable and non-renewable sources is their availability. Renewable energy sources like solar, wind, geothermal and hydro power are considered unlimited – they will not run out even with constant use. The sun will continue to shine, the wind will keep blowing, and the earth’s internal heat will remain for billions of years. We cannot use up these resources.

On the other hand, non-renewable sources like oil, natural gas and coal are available in limited quantities. They take millions of years to form naturally, and once we deplete the earth’s finite reserves, they will be gone forever. We are using up these resources much faster than they can be replenished naturally. At current rates of consumption, experts estimate oil reserves may run out within 50 years and natural gas in 60 years.

Because renewable sources will never run out, they provide energy security and independence. We don’t need to worry about running out of renewables or being dependent on other nations for our energy needs. Non-renewables make us reliant on imports and vulnerable to supply disruptions and price fluctuations.

Environmental Impact

When it comes to environmental impact, renewable energy sources are much cleaner and sustainable than non-renewable sources. Renewable sources like solar, wind, and hydropower produce little to no air or water pollution when generating electricity. Fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas emit high levels of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane when burned. These emissions contribute to climate change by trapping heat in the atmosphere.

Extracting and refining fossil fuels also carries major environmental risks. Oil spills can devastate marine ecosystems. Fracking to access natural gas can contaminate groundwater. Mining coal strips away landscapes and generates toxic waste. The environmental impacts of non-renewable sources persist even after extraction ends. Overall, transitioning to renewable energy is critical for protecting the planet and public health.


When it comes to the costs of renewable vs non-renewable energy sources, non-renewables like coal, natural gas and oil, are currently cheaper than most renewable sources. This is mainly due to the massive infrastructure, subsidies and investments that have already been made into fossil fuel energy over the past century.

However, costs for renewable energy like solar, wind and geothermal have been falling dramatically in recent years as technology improves and more infrastructure is built. The levelized cost for utility-scale solar PV electricity fell 88% between 2009 and 2020, while onshore wind costs fell 71% in that time.

In many regions, renewables are now cost-competitive or even cheaper than building new fossil fuel plants. As technology advances and fossil fuel prices fluctuate, renewables are projected to become even more cost-effective over time. The long-term operating costs of renewables are also extremely low compared to the continuous fuel costs of fossil fuels.

While non-renewables hold the cost advantage for now, market trends indicate renewables will reach cost parity in more places soon. And over the life cycle of a power plant, renewable energy is already economically competitive.


Currently, non-renewable energy sources like coal, natural gas, and nuclear provide more reliable base load power than most renewable sources. The intermittent nature of renewables like solar and wind make them less reliable than conventional baseload plants that can provide steady power output regardless of weather conditions. However, technical improvements to renewable generation and battery storage capabilities can help increase their reliability as part of a balanced power grid system. With further research, investment and integration strategies, renewables have the potential to become a stable baseload power source.


Renewable energy sources like solar and wind power have seen rapid growth in recent years as costs have declined and technology has improved. In the United States, the renewable share of electricity generation increased from under 10% in 2010 to nearly 20% by 2020. Government incentives and policies supporting renewables have accelerated the transition. Many experts predict renewables will continue to expand their market share as costs drop further.

Meanwhile, non-renewables like oil, natural gas, coal and nuclear power represent mature industries that have been in use for decades. Their growth has leveled off in many countries. In the U.S., electricity generation from coal and nuclear power has declined over the last 10 years while natural gas has stayed relatively flat. While non-renewables will continue to play a major role in meeting energy needs, especially natural gas, their era of rapid growth has passed.

Future Outlook

As technology improves and costs continue to fall, renewable energy is projected to overtake non-renewable sources as the primary means of energy generation globally. Climate change concerns and government incentives are accelerating the transition.

Many experts predict renewables like solar and wind will account for over 50% of electricity generation by 2030. The long-term projections are even more favorable for renewables. Renewable capacity is estimated to account for 86% of global power generation by 2050, with solar and wind combined making up nearly 70% of electricity generation.

In contrast, fossil fuels like oil, natural gas, and coal are expected to decline significantly. Impacts of climate change and pollution will likely impose further restrictions on carbon-based energy. While fossil fuels won’t disappear, their role in energy production is projected to diminish substantially as renewables become more cost competitive and widely adopted worldwide.


In summary, the key differences between renewable and non-renewable sources are their availability, environmental impact, cost, and reliability. Renewable sources like solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal and biomass are constantly replenished and will never run out. Non-renewable sources like coal, oil and natural gas have limited supplies and will eventually be depleted if consumption continues at current rates.

Renewables tend to be more environmentally friendly with lower greenhouse gas emissions compared to fossil fuels. However, renewables usually have higher upfront costs and can be intermittent depending on weather conditions. Meanwhile, non-renewables are relatively cheap and provide steady, consistent power, but at the cost of higher emissions.

There is a major transition underway from non-renewable fossil fuels to renewable energy across the globe. Renewables are seeing rapid growth and innovation to improve their competitiveness. While non-renewables still dominate energy supply today, renewables are expected to become more prevalent in the future as costs continue to fall and energy policies favor their adoption to mitigate climate change.

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