Renewable and Non-renewable Energy Resources Explained

by Kevin Stark

There are two major categories of energy: renewable and non-renewable.

Non-renewable energy resources are available in limited supplies, usually because they take a long time to replenish. The advantage of these non-renewable resources is that power plants that use them are able to produce more power on demand. The non-renewable energy resources are:

  • Coal
  • Nuclear
  • Oil
  • Natural gas

Renewable resources, on the other hand, replenish themselves. The five major renewable energy resources are:

  • Solar
  • Wind
  • Water, also called hydro
  • Biomass, or organic material from plants and animals
  • Geothermal, which is naturally occurring heat from the earth

While renewable energy resources have the advantage of unlimited supply over the long haul, they are limited in their availability at any given moment.

For example, the sun rises each day, but its ability to generate power is limited when its cloudy. Another disadvantage is that power plant operators can’t crank up renewable energy production when people are consuming more power, such as on a hot day when many people are running air conditioners at the same time.

States like California are trying to solve this problem by using energy storage, like large batteries, to collect electricity from renewable sources when demand is low in order to use it later when demand goes up.

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Non-renewable Energy and Climate Change

When coal, natural gas and oil are burned to produce energy, they emit heat-trapping gases such as carbon dioxide. This process of trapping heat is what drives climate change, and the failure to address this problem is what's catalyzing the current climate crisis.

Fossil fuels are hydrocarbon-containing materials like coal or gas that are found in the Earth’s crust and formed in the geological past from the remains of living organisms. These energy sources account for the majority of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

If emissions continue unrestrained, the atmosphere could warm by as much as 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above preindustrial levels by the year 2040, according to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of international scientists empowered by the United Nations to advise world leaders.

Scientists say this increase in the temperature  would threaten life on the planet in a myriad of ways, including severe water shortages; more air pollution; rising sea levels, habitat loss; heat waves; melting ice sheets in West Antarctica and Greenland; and destruction of the world’s coral reefs.

Over the last 150 years, humans are responsible for the vast majority of the increase of these gases in the atmosphere, and the burning of fossil fuels through activities like driving a car is the largest source of these emissions.

There is a vocal group of environmentalists and researchers —Stanford’s Mark Jacobson, who developed a state-by-state 100% renewable plan for one — who argue that the power grid should be supported only by renewable resources.

Policy makers who invest in renewable energy often do so with the goal of generating power without emitting these planet-warming gases.

The Nuclear Debate

Experts debate whether nuclear energy should be considered a renewable or non-renewable energy resource.

Nuclear energy is considered clean energy, as it doesn’t create any air pollution or emit carbon dioxide, but generates energy through nuclear fission, the process of atoms splitting apart.

For this reason, supporters of nuclear energy argue it should be considered renewable.

Those who are in favor of more nuclear energy hold that that even with investment in wind, solar and other renewable resources, nuclear power is necessary, because without it we can’t reduce emissions quickly enough to stave off the worst impacts of climate change. Without contributions from nuclear energy “the cost of achieving deep decarbonization targets increases significantly,” wrote MIT researchers in a 2018 paper examining the issue.

Detractors of this approach say that both the mining and refining of uranium and the building of nuclear power plants is energy-intensive. Other downsides to nuclear energy are the finite amount of uranium deposits on the planet and the production of harmful waste from nuclear reactors.

For these reasons, the U.S. Energy Information Administration considers it a non-renewable energy resource.

Links to Learn More

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Change
A body of the United Nations, the IPCC regularly assesses the science of climate change and issues annual reports on the impacts and risks of warming, as well as guidance for adaptation and mitigation.

U.S. Energy Administration
This U.S. Department of Energy website includes detailed information, analysis and graphics about energy production and use in the U.S.

The United States of Energy
A series of infographics provides insight on our country’s energy production and consumption of both renewable and non-renewable 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.

Andrea Aust contributed to this post.

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