Is Renewable Energy Finite Or Infinite?

Renewable energy sources like solar, wind, geothermal, and hydropower provide clean alternatives to fossil fuels for generating electricity. While fossil fuel reserves are finite and will eventually be depleted, renewable energy has the potential to be harnessed indefinitely. However, most renewables do have limitations in the amount of power density or energy they can produce per unit area. Understanding the nuances between the infinite duration but limited power density of renewables provides helpful context on their expanding role for energy production.

Definition of Renewable Energy

Renewable energy comes from natural sources that are constantly replenished. According to National Geographic, renewable energy can be defined as “Energy generated from natural resources—such as sunlight, wind, rain, tides and geothermal heat—which are naturally replenished” ( The key aspect is that these energy sources are continuously available and are not finite like fossil fuels.

Prysmian Group also defines renewable energy as “usable energy generated from naturally recurring processes” and emphasizes that renewable sources can be replenished in a short period of time ( This includes sunlight, wind, flowing water, organic plant and waste material, geothermal heat, and more.

In summary, renewable energy relies on resources that are continuously available in nature and are not depleted when used.

Types of Renewable Energy

There are several major types of renewable energy sources that are used to generate electricity and heat. These include:

  • Solar power – This uses energy from the sun to produce electricity and heat. Solar panels convert sunlight into electricity. Solar thermal collectors capture heat from the sun to warm water or air. (Renewable energy explained, n.d.)
  • Wind power – Wind turbines convert the kinetic energy in wind into mechanical power which is used to generate electricity. Wind farms comprised of multiple turbines harness wind energy. (Renewable energy explained, n.d.)
  • Hydropower – Flowing water such as in dams, rivers, and tidal waves contain kinetic energy that is captured by turbines to generate electricity. It is one of the oldest and largest sources of renewable power globally. (What are the different types of renewable energy?, 2022)
  • Geothermal – Natural heat from deep inside the earth is used to produce steam to drive turbine generators and produce electricity. Hot water reservoirs near the surface also provide geothermal heating. (Renewable energy explained, n.d.)
  • Biomass – Organic material from plants and animals is used to produce electricity, fuel, heat and biogas. Sources include wood, agricultural residues, municipal waste, landfill gas, and biofuels. (What are the different types of renewable energy?, 2022)

Infinite Duration

Many renewable energy sources such as the sun, wind, and tides won’t run out of fuel in the foreseeable future. The amount of solar energy that hits the Earth’s surface in an hour is greater than the amount of energy used globally in an entire year (See The sun provides a virtually unlimited supply of energy that can be harnessed indefinitely through solar panels and concentrated solar plants. Similarly, the wind and the tides are driven by solar energy and the gravitational pull of the moon and thus offer inexhaustible fuel sources. Geothermal energy derived from the Earth’s core is also constantly being replenished and is available indefinitely. The longevity and renewability of these resources make them highly attractive alternatives to finite fossil fuels.

Limited Power Density

Renewable energy sources like wind and solar have a lower power density than fossil fuels, meaning they produce less energy per unit of land area. For example, a 2017 study in the journal Energy Policy found that solar PV farms produce around 50 watts per square meter, whereas a natural gas power plant can produce over 1,000 watts in the same area
[1]. Wind power’s power density is around 1.5 watts per square meter
[2]. In contrast, nuclear power has a power density of over 1,300 watts per square meter. This lower power density means renewable energy like solar and wind require much more land to generate the same amount of electricity as fossil fuels.

Because of their diffuse nature, scaling up renewable energy to meet global energy demands would require vast amounts of land. A 2020 study in Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews estimated that supplying the world’s energy needs from 100% solar and wind would require solar and wind farms covering over 4 million square kilometers, around 3% of total global land area
[1]. Even with improvements in efficiency and energy storage, the inherently low power density of renewables remains a challenge for scaling up to fully replace fossil fuels.



Growth Potential

Renewable energy has significant room for expansion and growth in the coming decades. According to research, the global renewable energy market is projected to grow at a CAGR of 8% from 2018 to 2023, reaching over $1 trillion in revenue by 2023 (Renewable Energy Market Forecast, Growth, Analysis …). This growth will be driven by technological improvements, falling costs, and supportive government policies. Solar and wind power are expected to lead the growth, with solar PV capacity potentially tripling and wind power capacity doubling by 2023.

solar panels and wind turbines generating renewable energy

Key factors enabling the growth potential include:

  • Improving technologies – solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, and other technologies are steadily advancing in performance and efficiency.
  • Economies of scale – as deployment increases, manufacturers can produce at higher volumes and lower costs per unit.
  • Supportive policies – many governments are implementing renewable energy targets, incentives, and regulations to encourage adoption.
  • Corporate adoption – major companies are committing to 100% renewable energy to reduce emissions and energy costs.
  • Competitive pricing – in many markets, renewables have reached cost parity with fossil fuels, further driving uptake.

Despite the tremendous potential, growth rates will vary by country and market based on policy support, natural resources, energy demand profiles and grid infrastructure. Overall, analysts foresee renewables continuing their rapid growth in the coming decades as they move towards fulfilling their vast global potential.

Intermittency Challenges

One of the main critiques of renewable energy sources like solar and wind is that they are intermittent, meaning their power output varies based on environmental conditions. The sun obviously only shines during the day, and the amount of sunlight that reaches solar panels changes depending on the weather, seasons, and time of day. Similarly, wind speeds fluctuate daily and seasonally as weather patterns change. According to the Encyclopedia of Environmental Management, “Intermittency creates difficulties integrating renewable energy into electricity grids” (source).

This variability and unpredictability of solar and wind power can make it challenging to integrate large amounts of renewable energy onto the grid. Grid operators are used to fossil fuel power plants that can be dispatched on demand. With renewables, they cannot control exactly when the power will be generated. This requires developing new methods and infrastructure to balance electricity supply and demand.

Smart Grids and Storage

While renewable energy sources like solar and wind are intermittent, advances in grid technology like smart grids and energy storage can help smooth out renewable power supply. Smart grids use digital communications technology and automation to detect and react to local changes in usage (1). This allows grid operators to better manage the variability of renewables through forecasting supply and demand, routing power more flexibly, and calling up reserves when needed. Energy storage like batteries and pumped hydro can store excess renewable generation during times of oversupply and dispatch power when renewable resources are low (1)(2). Large-scale coordination of renewables, smart grid management, and grid storage can turn intermittent generation into reliable around-the-clock supply.




Comparisons to Fossil Fuels

When comparing renewable energy to fossil fuels, there are some key differences to consider. Fossil fuels like oil, coal, and natural gas are finite resources formed from the buried remains of plants and animals from millions of years ago [1]. Once these resources are extracted and used up, they cannot be replenished on a human timescale. Renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and hydropower are practically infinite in duration since they are continuously replenished by sunlight, wind, and the water cycle [2].

Fossil fuels also tend to have a much higher power density, meaning they pack a lot more energy per unit volume compared to most renewables. This makes fossil fuels convenient to transport and use. However, renewable energy technologies are rapidly improving their power densities as research and development continues [3]. While fossil fuels have some advantages, their finite and polluting nature necessitates a transition to sustainable renewables that can provide energy indefinitely.


In summary, renewable energy sources can be considered infinite in duration but constrained in power density. While the fuel sources for renewables like sunlight, wind, and geothermal heat are continuously replenished, the amount of energy that can be captured and converted through renewable technologies is limited by various factors. Fossil fuels have a much higher energy density and provide more controllable power output. However, fossil fuels are finite in quantity and will eventually be depleted if consumption continues at current rates. Renewable energy has significant room for growth in terms of technological improvements, smart grids, and energy storage solutions to overcome intermittency issues. While renewables may not fully replace all fossil fuel usage anytime soon, they provide a sustainable complement to aid the transition to a low-carbon future.

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