Which Resource Is Renewable?

Defining Renewable Resources

Renewable resources are those that replenish naturally over time. They are virtually inexhaustible in supply, even with heavy use and depletion. Examples include solar, wind, geothermal, hydro, and biomass energy sources. Renewables are constantly renewed by natural processes in reasonable timeframes. The renewable process is perpetual, with new supply produced when used. The five major renewable sources used for energy are:

  • Solar: From sunlight using photovoltaics, concentrating solar thermal plants, and passive solar heating.
  • Wind: Using wind turbines to generate electricity.
  • Geothermal: Harnessing heat from under the earth’s surface for electricity and heating.
  • Hydro: Using flowing water from rivers and streams for hydroelectric power.
  • Biomass: Using biological material like wood, agricultural waste, or methane gas from landfills.

The key aspect that makes these resources renewable is that they are naturally and perpetually replenished. As long as the sun shines, wind blows, rivers flow, plants grow, and the earth’s heat persists, these supplies are continuously available for harnessing as energy sources.

Examples of Renewable Resources

Some of the most common examples of renewable resources include:

  • Solar power – Energy from the sun that is converted into electricity through solar panels or concentrated solar plants.
  • Wind power – Wind turbines convert the kinetic energy of wind into mechanical power and ultimately electricity.
  • Hydropower – Flowing water from rivers, streams, or dams powers turbines to generate electricity.
  • Geothermal energy – Natural heat from inside the earth that can be tapped to produce heat or electricity.
  • Biomass – Plant or animal waste, like wood scraps, manure, and crop residues, that is burned or converted to produce energy.

These resources are considered renewable because they are naturally replenished over time. The sun keeps shining, the wind keeps blowing, rivers keep flowing, plants keep growing, etc. Unlike finite resources like oil and coal, renewable resources can be harnessed indefinitely if properly managed.

Defining Nonrenewable Resources

Nonrenewable resources are natural resources that cannot be replenished in a short period of time. They take thousands to millions of years to form naturally. Once depleted, nonrenewable resources essentially become unavailable for practical human usage because their quantities are finite and cannot be replenished in a timeframe relevant to humans.

The key characteristic of nonrenewable resources is that their rate of consumption far exceeds their rate of natural regeneration, meaning once used up, they are gone for all practical purposes. The most common examples of nonrenewable resources include fossil fuels like oil, natural gas and coal, which are made from decomposed organic matter that has been subjected to intense heat and pressure over millions of years. Metals like copper, iron and aluminum are also considered nonrenewable because their extraction involves refined minerals formed in specific geologic conditions over eons.

Unlike renewable resources that can regenerate within timeframes meaningful to humans, such as sunlight, wind and water, nonrenewable resources do not naturally form fast enough to keep pace with human consumption. This makes them unsustainable long-term energy and material sources. While improvements in efficiency of use can extend their lifespan, nonrenewable resources will ultimately dwindle in economically viable quantities.

Examples of Nonrenewable Resources

Some key examples of nonrenewable resources include:

Fossil Fuels

Fossil fuels like oil, natural gas, and coal are nonrenewable resources formed over millions of years from the remains of plants and animals. Fossil fuels are finite resources, meaning once they are used up, they cannot be replaced. They are a significant energy source, used to power vehicles and provide electricity across the world. However, burning fossil fuels contributes majorly to climate change, air pollution, and other environmental issues.

Nuclear Energy

Nuclear energy relies on radioactive elements like uranium and plutonium to generate power through nuclear fission. While the process itself does not produce air pollution or greenhouse gases, there are risks associated with radioactive waste, accidents, and proliferation. Uranium, the primary nuclear fuel, is also a limited resource that requires mining to extract.


Metals like copper, lead, gold, and other mineral resources are all considered nonrenewable. While some minerals are abundant, many require intensive mining operations to extract. As reserves are depleted, minerals become more difficult and costly to access. Recycling helps extend mineral supplies, but ultimately minerals are finite resources.

Comparing Renewable and Nonrenewable

Renewable and nonrenewable energy sources differ significantly in terms of their ability to replenish, their sustainability, and their environmental impacts. Renewable energy comes from natural sources that regenerate naturally over time, while nonrenewable energy relies on finite resources.

The key difference between renewable and nonrenewable energy is renewal rate. Renewable resources replenish naturally, while nonrenewable resources do not renew or replenish for all practical purposes. Renewable energy sources like solar, wind, geothermal and hydropower are constantly renewed by nature and will not run out. Nonrenewable energy sources like coal, oil and natural gas were formed over millions of years ago and cannot be replenished once depleted.

In terms of sustainability, renewable energy is considered sustainable over the long-term since its fuel sources will not be depleted. Nonrenewable energy is unsustainable in the long run since its resources are finite and will eventually be exhausted. The reserves for nonrenewable sources are being used up much faster than new reserves are being made available.

There are also major environmental impact differences. Most renewable energy sources produce little to no global warming emissions or air pollutants. On the other hand, nonrenewable energy sources like coal and gasoline produce significant amounts of greenhouse gases and other air pollutants when burned, contributing to climate change, smog and health effects. Renewables like solar and wind have very minimal impact on the environment.

In summary, the key contrasts are that renewable energy can replenish over time while nonrenewable sources cannot; renewable energy is sustainable long-term while nonrenewable sources are finite; and renewable energy is much better for the environment with minimal emissions and impact. This makes renewable energy critical for a sustainable energy future.

Usage Statistics

Renewable resources currently make up a small but growing percentage of global energy usage. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), renewables accounted for 12.6% of total primary energy supply in 2018. The most significant renewable resources were biofuels and waste (10.1%), followed by hydropower (2.4%), and other renewables like wind, solar and geothermal (0.1%).

Fossil fuels including oil, coal and natural gas still make up the majority of global energy usage at over 80%. However, renewable energy usage has been steadily increasing over the past decade. From 2008 to 2018, total renewable energy supply grew at an average annual rate of over 5%. The fastest growth came from solar and wind power, which grew at rates of over 20% annually. Hydropower capacity expanded at over 3% annually.

Looking forwards, renewables are expected to continue increasing their share of global energy supply. The IEA projects renewable energy to expand by over 60% and account for almost 30% of electricity generation by 2024. Growth will be driven by solar and wind power, which are expected to jump by 20% each year on average. Policies that promote renewables and reduce carbon emissions will further accelerate this energy transition.

Benefits of Renewable Resources

Renewable energy sources offer many benefits compared to fossil fuels. Some of the key advantages of renewable energy include:

  • Sustainability – Renewable resources like solar, wind, and hydropower provide an endless supply of clean energy. We won’t run out of them like coal, oil, and natural gas.
  • Energy independence – Using local renewable energy sources reduces a country’s dependence on imported fossil fuels.
  • Job creation – Building renewable energy infrastructure creates jobs in manufacturing, construction, maintenance, and more.
  • Lower emissions – Renewables produce little to no greenhouse gases or air pollutants when generating electricity.
  • Cost savings – Once built, the ‘fuel’ for renewable energy is free. The cost of wind, solar, and hydro power is much more stable than volatile fossil fuel prices.
  • Better public health – Reducing air pollution from fossil fuel emissions provides health benefits like reduced asthma and heart disease.

The transition to renewable energy will bring significant economic, environmental, and social benefits. Renewables are clean, sustainable, and increasingly cost-competitive with conventional power sources.

Limitations of Renewable Resources

While renewable resources have many benefits, they also come with some limitations and challenges:

Intermittency and reliability: Many renewables like solar and wind are weather-dependent and generate electricity intermittently. This can lead to reliability issues and require storage solutions.

High upfront costs: The initial investment required for renewable projects tend to be high compared to fossil fuels. The payback period can stretch over many years.

Land use constraints: Renewable installations can take up large land areas (e.g. hydropower dams, wind/solar farms), creating land use conflicts.

Aesthetic impacts: Some renewables are considered unsightly (e.g. wind turbines). This can lead to “not in my backyard” opposition.

Storage limitations: Most renewables cannot be stored directly and require batteries or other storage mechanisms, adding to costs.

Transmission constraints: Areas with abundant renewables are often remote. New transmission infrastructure is needed to transport the electricity.

Scalability challenges: It takes time and effort to scale renewable technologies to meet larger energy demands.

Despite these limitations, steady improvements are helping renewables become more dispatchable, affordable and scalable over time.

The Role of Policy

Government policies play a pivotal role in accelerating the transition from nonrenewable to renewable energy sources. Policymakers have a number of tools at their disposal to incentivize renewables and reduce reliance on fossil fuels like oil, coal and natural gas.

Some key policy options include:

  • Tax credits – Providing tax credits and other financial incentives for renewable energy production can make it more cost-competitive with conventional sources.
  • Carbon pricing – Putting a price on carbon emissions through a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system increases the cost of fossil fuels, making renewables more attractive.
  • Renewable portfolio standards – Requiring utilities to source a certain percentage of their electricity from renewables creates guaranteed demand.
  • Net metering – Allowing homeowners with rooftop solar to sell excess power back to the grid makes small-scale renewable installations more viable.
  • Cutting fossil fuel subsidies – Removing subsidies for fossil fuel production helps level the playing field for renewables.
  • Investing in infrastructure – Upgrading grids, installing charging stations, and expanding transmission capacity unlocks renewable energy growth.

Thoughtfully designed policies like these can reshape energy markets to favor renewable sources. As the costs of renewables fall, the right policy environment will accelerate the energy transition already underway in many parts of the world.

The Future of Energy

The potential for renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and hydro to replace nonrenewable sources like coal, oil, and natural gas is promising yet challenging. Key innovations in renewable energy technology along with changes in energy policy and consumer behavior can help accelerate this transition.

With costs falling dramatically in recent years, solar and wind are now the cheapest sources of new electricity generation in most markets. Improvements in energy storage, smart grids, and energy efficiency can help overcome intermittency issues with solar and wind. Emerging renewable sources like tidal, geothermal, and advanced biofuels may also play a bigger role. Policy support through tax incentives, carbon pricing, and clean energy mandates can further boost renewables.

However, replacing existing nonrenewable infrastructure involves trillions in investment. Fossil fuels currently supply 80% of global energy demand. While renewable costs have fallen, existing assets and subsidies for nonrenewables slow the transition. Political and cultural inertia are also challenges. Still, with the right policies, investments, and technological breakthroughs, renewables could feasibly generate 50-100% of electricity within a few decades in many markets.

The renewable transition brings major environmental and health benefits through reduced pollution. It also creates economic opportunities in manufacturing, installation, and maintenance of clean energy systems. With thoughtful policies and a society-wide commitment, a renewable energy future is achievable in our lifetimes.

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