What Is The Main Difference Between Renewable And Nonrenewable Resources Quizlet?

Defining Renewable Resources

Renewable resources are those that can be replenished naturally in a relatively short period of time. They are continuously available and are considered infinite in supply. Examples include:

  • Solar energy from the sun
  • Wind energy
  • Hydropower from flowing water
  • Geothermal energy from the earth’s core
  • Biomass from plants and organic waste

Renewable resources are naturally regenerated over timescales ranging from minutes to years. The key aspect is that they are never fully “used up” or depleted, making them a sustainable source of energy or materials if properly managed.

Defining Nonrenewable Resources

Nonrenewable resources exist in finite quantities and take a long time to form naturally. Examples of nonrenewable resources include fossil fuels like oil, gas, and coal that come from the remains of ancient plants and animals buried deep in the earth. Minerals and metals like iron, aluminum, copper, gold, and uranium that must be mined from the earth are also considered nonrenewable.

These resources are considered nonrenewable because their rate of formation is extremely slow, and reserves are being depleted much faster than new ones are being made. Fossil fuels, for example, form over millions of years as heat and pressure transform buried organic matter into hydrocarbons. Metal reserves accrue as hot, mineral-rich waters slowly deposit substances in cracks and voids in the earth’s crust.

Once these finite resources are extracted and used, they are essentially gone. Though recycling can help recover some materials like metals, most nonrenewable resources are not replaceable over human timescales. So while the earth has abundant reserves, they are finite and diminishing with human consumption.


Renewable resources are naturally replenished and practically inexhaustible within the human timescale. The four most common types – solar, wind, water and biomass – derive their energy from continuous natural cycles. The sun will continue to shine, the wind will continue to blow, the water cycle will continue to circulate water, and plants will continue to grow as long as the Earth exists.

In contrast, nonrenewable resources exist in fixed amounts that cannot be replenished after extraction and use. Fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal originate from ancient plants and animals that decomposed over millions of years. Nuclear fuels like uranium are formed by natural radioactive processes. Once extracted and consumed, fossil fuels and nuclear fuels are permanently depleted. Based on current consumption levels, experts estimate that oil will run out within the next 50 years, natural gas within the next 60 years, and coal within the next 150 years. Uranium may last another 80-100 years. Since nonrenewables cannot be replenished, they are fundamentally limited in availability and will eventually be exhausted.


One of the key differences between renewable and nonrenewable resources is the rate at which they can be replenished. Renewable resources are able to be replenished in a relatively short amount of time, often within a human lifetime. This includes resources like solar, wind, geothermal and biomass energy. As long as the sun keeps shining, the wind keeps blowing, and plants keep growing, these resources can be renewed again and again.

Nonrenewable resources, on the other hand, take an extremely long time to form naturally. We’re talking thousands if not millions of years for resources like coal, oil, natural gas and uranium to be created. Because they take so long to form, for all intents and purposes the amount of nonrenewable resources on Earth is fixed. Once we deplete the existing reserves of nonrenewables, they cannot be replaced in timescales relevant to humans.

This key difference in replenishment rates makes renewable resources far more sustainable over the long-term. As long as we protect the renewable resource (e.g., forests for biomass), we can depend on its replenishment year after year. Nonrenewables are being used up much faster than they are formed, meaning these resources will eventually dwindle and become too expensive or environmentally damaging to retrieve.

Environmental Impact

Renewable energy sources like solar, wind, hydropower, and geothermal are generally cleaner for the environment compared to nonrenewable sources like coal, oil, and natural gas. Renewables produce little to no global warming emissions and air pollutants. In contrast, burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, particulates, and mercury compounds, which contribute to smog, acid rain, health problems, and climate change. Nonrenewables can also have environmental impacts from resource extraction, transport, storage, and waste disposal. For example, oil spills can harm wildlife and ecosystem health.

That said, some renewable projects like dams and wind farms can disrupt local wildlife habitats and landscapes. There are also emissions from manufacturing and transporting renewable energy equipment. But these impacts are usually smaller than the air and water pollution caused by nonrenewable sources. Overall, transitioning to renewable energy and away from fossil fuels can significantly reduce environmental damage and support sustainability.


When it comes to cost, nonrenewable resources often have the advantage over renewables. Extracting fossil fuels like oil, coal, and natural gas requires well-established technologies that keep costs relatively low. On the other hand, sources like wind, solar, and geothermal power require newer technologies and infrastructure investments that make them more expensive in many situations.

However, costs for renewable energy have been dropping steadily as the technology improves and scales up. The cost of solar power, for example, has fallen over 90% in the last decade. As renewables get cheaper and more competitive, they become viable options even for large utilities and energy producers. Many experts predict renewables reaching cost parity with fossil fuels within the next 5-10 years.

Government incentives like tax credits and carbon pricing have also helped make renewables more cost competitive with traditional energy sources. Overall, while nonrenewables currently enjoy a cost advantage, continued innovation and supportive policies are helping renewables catch up quickly when it comes to affordability.


chart comparing costs of renewable vs nonrenewable energy sources.

Nonrenewable energy sources like coal, natural gas, and nuclear provide consistent and steady energy output regardless of environmental conditions. They can be dispatched on demand to meet peaks in energy consumption. Their supply is unaffected by daily or seasonal variations in weather.

In contrast, renewable energy sources like wind and solar rely on natural conditions that fluctuate. The amount of power generated depends on factors like wind speed or solar irradiation. This makes their energy supply intermittent and variable. Energy storage and backup capacity is needed to smooth out renewable supply. Overall, nonrenewables offer more reliable and predictable energy compared to weather-dependent renewables.


Existing infrastructure and investment has historically favored nonrenewable energy sources like oil, coal and natural gas. The systems for extracting, transporting and burning these fossil fuels are well established after more than a century of dominance. However, new technology is making renewable sources more viable:

  • Advances in solar panel efficiency, energy storage, and manufacturing have dramatically lowered costs and improved capacity.
  • New wind turbine designs can capture wind energy more reliably and efficiently.
  • Smart grids, microgrids, and better energy management systems enable greater integration of renewables into the existing grid infrastructure.
  • Innovations in batteries and storage help mitigate intermittency issues with solar and wind power.
  • Carbon capture systems provide ways for fossil fuel plants to reduce emissions.
  • Biofuels and electrification are transitioning the transportation sector toward renewables.
  • R&D continues on next-gen renewable solutions like tidal, wave power, geothermal, hydrogen, and nuclear fusion.

Overall, technology is making renewables more cost-competitive with conventional energy. This trend will likely accelerate the transition toward cleaner energy production over the coming decades.


Government policy plays a major role in incentivizing renewable energy adoption. Many countries provide tax credits, subsidies, and other incentives to support renewable energy development and adoption. These policies help level the playing field for renewables to compete with heavily subsidized fossil fuels.

Fossil fuel lobbying also influences energy policy. The fossil fuel industry advocates for policies that benefit their businesses, while fighting policies that threaten their market share. This political influence has made enacting ambitious climate policies more difficult.

The transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy raises important policy questions around supporting displaced workers, building new infrastructure, updating grid technology, and more. Navigating this shift requires complex policymaking at local, national, and international levels.

As the urgency of climate change mounts, governments face growing public pressure to reduce emissions. This is driving many countries to enact stronger policies to curb fossil fuel use and accelerate the renewable energy transition.

The Future

Most experts agree renewables will need to play a bigger role going forward. As climate change continues to threaten the planet, there is a growing global consensus that we must transition away from fossil fuels and other nonrenewable sources. Renewable energy offers a sustainable path forward that does not contribute additional carbon emissions.

However, nonrenewables will remain an important part of our energy mix through this transition period. Completely replacing all nonrenewable sources with renewables in a short time frame is likely unrealistic. Nonrenewables help provide reliable baseload power as renewable capacity scales up. They also offer energy security by utilizing domestic resources in many countries.

The ideal future scenario entails steadily phasing out nonrenewables in favor of renewables over the next few decades. With the right policies, investments, and technological advances, renewables could feasibly generate 50-90% of electricity in most regions by 2050. Nonrenewables would continue playing a diminished but strategic role until renewables plus storage can fully meet energy demands.

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