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Nonrenewable and Renewable Energy Resources

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Hey! The post you are on right now was written in 2014. Please see this updated article with more current information, including new sections on climate change and nuclear power.

There are nine major areas of energy resources. They fall into two categories: nonrenewable and renewable. Nonrenewable energy resources, like coal, nuclear, oil, and natural gas, are available in limited supplies. This is usually due to the long time it takes for them to be replenished. Renewable resources are replenished naturally and over relatively short periods of time. The five major renewable energy resources are solar, wind, water (hydro), biomass, and geothermal.

Since the dawn of humanity people have used renewable sources of energy to survive -- wood for cooking and heating, wind and water for milling grain, and solar for lighting fires. A little more than 150 years ago people created the technology to extract energy from the ancient fossilized remains of plants and animals. These super-rich but limited sources of energy (coal, oil, and natural gas) quickly replaced wood, wind, solar, and water as the main sources of fuel.

Fossil fuels make up a large portion of today’s energy market, although promising new renewable technologies are emerging. Careers in both the renewable and nonrenewable energy industries are growing; however, there are differences between the two sectors. They each have benefits and challenges, and relate to unique technologies that play a role in our current energy system. For a range of reasons, from the limited amount of fossil fuels available to their effects on the environment, there is increased interest in using renewable forms of energy and developing technologies to increase their efficiency. This growing industry calls for a new workforce.

This infographic is part of our Energy collection.

Discussion Questions for Exploring Careers in Renewable Energy

  • What are some ways that humans used renewable resources for energy centuries or even millennia ago?
  • Research what kind(s) of renewable energy your state produces. Why is your state an optimal location for that form of renewable energy?
  • Choose a renewable energy resource. Brainstorm three to five types of jobs in that field.
  • Research a new and innovative technology in each of the renewable energy categories. What are the benefits of the new technologies? What are the risks? Which area (solar, wind, etc.) sounds the most exciting to you? Why?
  • Take a look at the pie chart of our national energy consumption by source in 2011. Which renewable do you think has the potential for the most growth as a source of energy for the U.S.? Why? What factors are involved?

Links to Learn More

  • Energy Education and Workforce Development, U.S. Department of Energy website -- The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy supports education and workforce development. Find out about clean energy jobs, explore careers, and find internships in the renewable energy industry.
  • Renewable Energy, Green 360 website -- Get an insider view from people who work in the field of renewable energy. Hear about what a typical day is like for someone in the industry, learn about up-and-coming careers, find opportunities to get involved, and more with this blog.
  • The United States of Energy, Saxum infographics -- A series of infographics provides insight on our country’s energy production and consumption of both renewable and nonrenewable energy sources.
  • PBS LearningMedia -- Find hundreds of digital media resources about renewable energy for use in the classroom from public media stations across the country.

NGSS Correlations

  • Performance Expectation: Construct an explanation based on evidence for how the availability of natural resources, occurrence of natural hazards, and changes in climate have influenced human activity. HS-ESS3-1
  • Disciplinary Core Idea: Resource availability has guided the development of human society. HS-ESS3.A: Natural Resources
  • Science & Engineering Practices: Constructing explanations and designing solutions


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