Is Renewable Energy A Fossil Fuel

What are fossil fuels?

is renewable energy a fossil fuel

Fossil fuels are energy sources that formed when prehistoric plants and animals died and were gradually buried by layers of rock. Over millions of years, the remains were transformed into deposits of coal, oil, and natural gas under high pressure and temperatures. The main fossil fuels used today are:

  • Coal – A black or brownish-black solid combustible rock formed from compressed and altered plant matter.
  • Oil – A viscous liquid derived from petroleum, used as a fuel and lubricant.
  • Natural gas – A gas, primarily methane, occurring naturally underground and used as fuel.

Coal, oil, and natural gas provide the majority of the world’s energy needs, powering electricity generation, heating, industry, and transportation. However, their supplies are finite and nonrenewable. Fossil fuels also produce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases when burned, contributing significantly to climate change.

What is renewable energy?

Renewable energy comes from natural sources that are constantly replenished. Some of the most common sources of renewable energy include:

  • Solar – Solar energy comes directly from the sun in the form of heat and light. It is harnessed using solar panels that convert sunlight into electricity. Solar is one of the fastest growing renewable energy sources in the world. (UN)
  • Wind – Wind turbines convert the kinetic energy of wind into mechanical power to generate electricity. Wind power is increasingly being used around the world for grid electricity. (UN)
  • Hydroelectric – Hydropower plants capture the energy of flowing water to produce electricity. Hydroelectric dams provide nearly 20% of the world’s electricity. (National Grid)
  • Geothermal – Geothermal energy harnesses the natural heat inside the earth to produce steam to drive turbines and generate power. It provides clean electricity around the clock. (National Grid)
  • Biomass – Bioenergy comes from burning organic matter like wood, garbage or alcohol fuels to produce heat and electricity. It helps use waste materials productively. (National Grid)

Key differences between renewable energy and fossil fuels

There are a few key differences that set renewable energy and fossil fuels apart:

Fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas are nonrenewable energy sources formed over millions of years from the remains of plants and animals. Once these fuel supplies are depleted, they are gone forever. Renewable energy sources like solar, wind, hydropower and biomass are sustainable energy sources that are replenished naturally. The wind and sun will be available for the foreseeable future.

The burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil releases greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which contributes to climate change, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists ( The process of harnessing renewable energy does not release any harmful emissions.

Because of these differences, there is a global push to transition from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prevent further climate change.

Common Renewable Energy Sources

There are several major renewable energy sources that are in widespread use around the world today. Some of the most common are:

Solar Energy

Solar energy utilizes energy from the sun to generate electricity and provide lighting, heating, and cooling. Some common methods of harnessing solar energy include photovoltaic panels and solar thermal collectors. Solar is one of the fastest growing renewable energy sources globally, with installed capacity exceeding 600 GW by 2019 [1].

Wind Energy

Wind power uses large wind turbines to generate electricity from kinetic energy created by wind. Wind turbines are increasingly being installed onshore and offshore to take advantage of strong winds. Global wind energy capacity reached over 650 GW by 2019 and is still expanding rapidly [2].


Hydropower harnesses the energy from flowing water to produce electricity via hydroelectric dams and turbines. With over 1,300 GW of installed capacity, hydropower is the most utilized renewable energy source globally [3]. However, growth has slowed in recent years.

Geothermal Energy

Geothermal energy taps into naturally occurring heat from the earth’s crust to provide renewable power and heating/cooling. While growth has been steady, installed geothermal capacity remains relatively small at around 14 GW globally [4].

Biomass Energy

Biomass energy utilizes organic matter like plants, wood, and waste to produce renewable electricity and heat. Biomass sources can include forest residues, agricultural crops, and garbage. Global bioenergy capacity for power and heat exceeds 130 GW [5].

Benefits of renewable energy

Renewable energy provides substantial benefits for our climate, environment, health, and economy. Some of the key benefits include:

  • Sustainability – Renewable sources like solar, wind, and hydropower provide an endless supply of clean energy. We won’t run out of sunlight, wind, or water unlike finite fossil fuels.UCSUSA
  • Reduces greenhouse gas emissions – Renewables produce little to no global warming emissions, which is critical for mitigating climate change. Shifting to renewables can significantly reduce carbon emissions from electricity generation.EPA
  • Energy independence – Developing local renewable energy provides energy independence and security. We rely less on imported fossil fuels and reduce vulnerability to price hikes or supply disruptions.Department of Energy

Transitioning to renewable energy sources provides major environmental and economic advantages over continued reliance on fossil fuels. Renewables offer a sustainable path forward to a cleaner and more self-sufficient energy future.

Challenges of Renewable Energy

While renewable energy continues to grow, there are still some challenges that need to be addressed (IEA). Some of the main challenges facing renewable energy technologies are:

Higher Upfront Costs

The initial investment required for renewable energy systems can be greater than the cost of traditional fossil fuel systems. This includes costs for manufacturing, installation, and grid connections (Sustainable Review). However, renewable energy technologies have no fuel costs and lower maintenance costs over their lifetime.


Many renewable energy sources like solar and wind are weather dependent and intermittent. This can make it difficult to integrate large amounts of renewable energy into the electric grid. Additional infrastructure like energy storage is needed to account for variability in supply (Regen Power).

Energy Storage

Energy storage systems like batteries can help address the intermittency of renewables. However, available storage technologies may not yet be adequate for grid-scale storage needs. Continued innovation and cost reductions in storage are required.

Transmission Capacity

Many prime renewable energy sites are located far from energy demand centers. New or upgraded transmission lines are often required to bring renewable electricity to consumers. Permitting and building new transmission capacity can be challenging.

Growth of renewable energy

The renewable energy sector has experienced significant growth in recent years due to several key factors:

Increased investment – According to the International Energy Agency, global investment in renewable energy hit $282.2 billion in 2019, an increase of 1% from 2018. This investment has enabled more renewable energy projects and infrastructure to come online.

Cost reductions – The costs of renewable energy technologies, particularly solar and wind, have declined dramatically in the last decade. This makes renewables more cost-competitive with fossil fuels. The levelized cost of electricity from utility-scale solar PV dropped 88% between 2009 and 2019, according to Lazard data.

Supportive policies – Many governments have implemented policies to incentivize renewables, such as tax credits, feed-in tariffs, renewable portfolio standards and carbon pricing programs. According to C2ES, state renewable portfolio standards accounted for the deployment of 25% of U.S. renewable electricity generation in 2019.

These factors have driven renewable energy’s share of global electricity generation from 19.8% in 2010 to over 27% in 2019, according to IEA data. Continued declines in renewable energy costs coupled with climate change concerns are expected to further accelerate growth.

Role of fossil fuels

Fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas still provide the major source of energy in the world today (U.S. energy facts explained – consumption and production). However, fossil fuel usage has been declining over time as renewable sources of energy become more widely adopted. Fossil fuel consumption accounted for about 79% of total U.S. energy consumption in 2021, which was down from its peak of 86% in 2008 (Fossil fuel sources accounted for 79% of U.S. consumption).

On a global scale, world fossil fuel consumption per capita increased rapidly from the 1950s up until the mid-2000s. Since then, it has remained relatively flat or slightly declined. In 2020, world fossil fuel consumption per capita stood at 1.9 tons of oil equivalent, down from 2 tons in 2006 (Fossil fuels). The leveling off of fossil fuel usage indicates a transition underway towards renewable energy sources.

While fossil fuels are still a major part of the global energy system, their role is expected to diminish over the coming decades as countries continue to enact policies that promote renewable energy and reduce carbon emissions. However, the transition will take time and fossil fuels are likely to remain significant energy sources through at least mid-century.

Transitioning to renewable energy

In order to transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy, concerted efforts are needed at all levels of society – from government policies to individual actions to business adoption. According to the United Nations, governments can promote the renewable energy transition by establishing “robust policy frameworks” that incentivize renewable energy production and use while ending fossil fuel subsidies ( Policies such as carbon pricing, renewable portfolio standards, and net metering can accelerate the transition.

Individuals can also play a role in the renewable energy transition through their own choices and behaviors. Installing solar panels, purchasing renewable energy from their utility, buying energy efficient appliances, and reducing energy consumption in their homes and transportation are impactful steps individuals can take (We Need a Renewable Energy Transition). Voting for leaders that prioritize climate action and renewable energy is another way to move the transition forward.

Lastly, businesses have an opportunity to lead in renewable energy adoption. Corporations can install onsite renewable energy, sign power purchase agreements for renewable electricity, improve energy efficiency in their operations, and invest in clean energy startups and R&D. As major energy consumers, businesses adopting renewables can drive significant market transformation (What is Energy Transition?).


In summary, renewable energy sources like solar, wind, hydropower, geothermal and biomass offer a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas. Renewable energy comes from naturally replenished sources and does not produce greenhouse gas emissions. Fossil fuels on the other hand are finite resources that take millions of years to form, and burning them contributes significantly to climate change.

The use of renewable energy is growing rapidly as costs fall, but challenges remain. The intermittent nature of renewables requires improvements in energy storage and grid infrastructure. There is also a need to scale up renewable energy quickly enough to meet emissions reduction targets and mitigate climate risks. However, the potential is enormous if these roadblocks can be overcome.

Transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy globally is critical to building a sustainable future. While renewable energy has its difficulties, it offers a multitude of environmental and economic benefits over relying on finite and polluting fossil fuel reserves. With the right policies, investments and technologies, renewable energy can continue its impressive growth while reducing dependence on fossil fuels.

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