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Difference Between Renewable and Nonrenewable Energy
Inspire Clean Energy
15 min read
category: Clean Energy 101
Climate change and renewable energy are subjects we hear discussed every day in the news, but the terminology itself is still relatively new to many of us. What constitutes renewable energy? What are the advantages and disadvantages of renewable and nonrenewable energy sources?
Let's get into the commonly asked questions surrounding climate change and renewable energy so you can make informed choices about how you live your life.
What are renewable and nonrenewable energy sources?
A renewable energy source is a resource we can access infinitely; it's one that constantly replenishes itself without human involvement. Renewable energy sources come from natural elements such as wind, water, the sun and even plant matter. There will always be wind blowing, sun shining and water flowing, regardless of how much of each resource we use to produce energy.
Nonrenewable energy sources, on the other hand, are only available in fixed amounts. In most cases, this refers to fossil fuels such as natural gas, oil, and coal. While these resources did originate from organic matter, they take hundreds of thousands of years to create and require a hyper-pressurized environment to become the oil, coal and gas we can use for fuel. Once burned, they are gone forever.
What is the difference between renewable and nonrenewable resources?
Renewable energy harnesses natural energy to produce energy that we can consume. For example, wind's natural kinetic energy is used to turn a generator, which produces electricity. And since the wind will continue to blow, it cannot be "used up." Nonrenewable resources can only be used once, and we can't produce more to replace what we use.
Aside from the fact that one resource is replenishable and another is not, the main difference between renewable and nonrenewable energy sources is their respective financial costs, exhaustion rate and environmental costs.
What are some examples of renewable resources?
Some examples of renewable resources are:
What are some examples of nonrenewable resources?
Examples of nonrenewable resources are:
What are the advantages and disadvantages of renewable resources?
Now that we have a clear understanding of what each type of resource is, let's take a look at the advantages and disadvantages of renewable resources:
- Renewables are newer, less established, and typically more expensive. While better for our planet, many types of clean energy infrastructure can cost more to install than traditional energy generating systems. While expensive initially, wind turbines will pay for themselves over time while operational, as energy cost savings outweigh the initial cost. As a result, wind turbines are accessible and valuable investments for those who can afford to pay for them upfront, but this may not be possible in lower-income communities.
- Another unfortunate downside to renewable energy ties in with the consequences of our ever-growing world population, and therefore the increased demand for energy. Currently, the electricity demand is so high that it wouldn't be possible to meet global needs with renewable resources alone. That is not to say that it won't be possible one day, but right now, these demands can only be met by a combination of renewable and nonrenewable energy.
- People are creatures of habit and prefer to stick to what they know. The newness and unfamiliarity of clean energy can turn people off to investing in such technologies. A great example of this is the phenomenon of electric cars, which we can charge using renewable electricity. Unfortunately, money ties in with this issue, as running cars on more traditional fuels like diesel and gasoline are significantly cheaper, so people favor these options.
- One of the biggest reasons scientists are promoting renewable energy sources is for environmental reasons. They do not release harmful carbon emissions into the atmosphere and help to offset emissions.
- They can drastically improve our air quality and respiratory health. Using more environmentally friendly energy sources can save the government millions of dollars in healthcare costs each year, with fewer people hospitalized for asthma and emissions-related respiratory illnesses.
- In addition to being better for the environment and our health, using more significant amounts of renewable energy means we can conserve nonrenewable resources. Things like fossil fuels, natural gas, oil, and coal can take millions of years to form, and because they're available in a finite amount, we need to save some for the future.
- Renewable energy supports job growth globally. Wind Turbine Technician is the second-fastest-growing job in the U.S., with a 68% growth rate (accounting for 2020 to 2030). Solar Photovoltaic Installers sits in third with a 52% growth rate.
While both renewable and nonrenewable energy sources can power our homes, cars, schools and businesses, switching to renewable energy will have a lasting and positive impact on the environment and future generations.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of nonrenewable resources?
So, what about nonrenewable resources?
- As many people know, nonrenewable energy's main disadvantage lies in its harmful effects on the environment. Nonrenewable alternatives such as coal, oil, and natural gas must be burned to use their energy. This releases dangerous amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which causes global warming.
- They're costly to extract, and we must constantly search for new supplies for them.
- They're dangerous – people still die in mining accidents today, even here in the U.S.
- Nonrenewable energy sources are cheap and relatively accessible.
- Our infrastructure is optimized for their use. They are used globally every day, which helps drive down the prices of resources like coal, oil, and other fossil fuels.
- Nonrenewable energy sources are also far more reliable than renewable energy sources, which depend on the elements. Because nonrenewable energy exists in itself and can be stored for later use, we don't have to worry about waiting for the wind to blow or the sun to shine.
How are nonrenewable and renewable resources formed?
Nonrenewable energy is ancient and comes from the fossilized remains of animals and plants. Nonrenewable energy takes an incredible amount of time to form, so it is not considered sustainable or renewable for the long term. Renewable energy sources come from nature, too, but they are accessible at nearly all times worldwide. In theory, we can obtain and replenish renewable resources every day. Every time the wind blows, the sun shines and water runs through a river, we can harness that energy to make electricity.
How does human activity affect the planet's renewable and nonrenewable resources?
Human activity is the reason why nonrenewable energy sources are depleting. In today's global energy grid, infrastructure leans heavily on nonrenewables' daily use, and our reliance on these resources is one of the key reasons they will run out.
These facts lead us to prioritize developing renewable energy sources that can take the place of nonrenewables. We have seen exponential growth in the usage of renewable energy sources as a result. Ultimately, human activity has dwindled nonrenewable resources considerably, but it gives us the chance to invest in more sustainable options for the future.
It's important to note that you have the power to choose which type of resource you rely on for your energy. The more people who choose to power their lives with renewable energy sources, the higher the demand for those resources and the higher likelihood they will succeed in the long run.
Inspire's customers are making a powerful statement when they choose us as their energy supplier. Not only are they significantly reducing their carbon footprint, but they're increasing the demand for renewable energy, which helps create more of it. You can find how to join our movement here.
How easily are renewable and nonrenewable resources obtained and replenished?
Nonrenewable Nonrenewable resources have to be extracted by mining or drilling down into Earth's crust. This process is often dangerous for workers and disruptive to the surrounding landscape. It must then be transported worldwide, which uses even more fuel and can result in hazardous events like oil spills.
Renewable Renewable resources are obtained anywhere the resource is found and where it is practical to install the necessary technology to access it. For example, any sunny rooftop in Arizona can be used to generate solar energy. Many coastal areas are suitable for offshore wind farms, and rivers and streams are ideal for hydropower. It is replenished whenever there is a sufficient amount to generate electricity.
What do renewable and nonrenewable resources have in common?
They are very different forms of energy. However, some of the things they have in common are:
- They cost money to generate and produce
- They produce jobs
- Biomass is also burned, like fossil fuels
- They can power our world
How fast are renewables growing?
Renewable energy is growing rapidly, which can be partially attributed to the continued advancement of technology, a consistent decrease in overall costs associated with renewable energy projects, and the increased awareness of how burning fossil fuels contributes directly to climate change. For these reasons, the world's renewable energy capacity increased by 45% in 2020 alone, the most significant annual increase in renewable energy capacity since 1999. Much of this increase comes from the world's expansion of solar and wind energy. The global wind energy capacity increased by 90% in 2020 alone. That is a staggering figure to consider. Solar can be accredited with a 23% increase in new solar power installations during 2020 as well. These two types of renewable energy generation were the main drivers of the overall 45% increase in renewable energy capacity in 20201. So, if renewable energy grew by 45% in 2020, mainly due to unprecedented increases in wind and solar, who were the significant contributors to the rise?
The two most prominent contributors to the impressive 45% increase in renewable energy capacity in 2020 are China and the U.S. In the last three months of 2020 alone, China added over 92 gigawatts of renewable energy capacity. Over the same period, the U.S. added 19 gigawatts of renewable energy capacity as well2.
In the fight against climate change, these increases in renewable energy utilization need to become the norm. One other statistic that goes well with the 45% increase in renewable energy capacity in 2020 is that the global consumption of coal fell by 4% in the same year. Coal is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and the rapid changing of our climate and increasing temperatures.
Can the world run on renewable energy?
The question should not be, can the world run on renewable energy, but will the world be able to meet 100% of its energy needs with renewable energy? It is possible for the world to only run on renewable energy. The technology has been there for quite a while now. Still, due to the fossil fuel industry's influence, the rollout of new renewable energy projects has been slow up until the last 10-years.
According to the National Renewable Energy Lab in the United States, the U.S. energy infrastructure could use 80% renewable energy sources by 2030. To see an electrical grid of 100% renewable energy, this could realistically be achieved by 2050. The challenge will be to transition from fossil fuels and other nonrenewable energy sources to renewable energy sources without causing overwhelming damage to the U.S. economy. Aside from potential economic losses from the transition to renewable energy, governments and energy policymakers are careful to make sure they increase their dependence on renewable energy sources as the technology continues to improve and costs continue to drop. One significant technological advancement that needs to continue progressing is energy storage for renewable energy sources. For example, solar energy only works during the daytime when there is little to no cloud cover and dry weather conditions. During these times of peak energy absorption, there needs to be a cost-efficient way to store excess energy that is not being used immediately. The extra energy needs to be stored in a solar battery system that can be utilized when the sun is not present or low production. Currently, these battery storage systems can be pretty expensive. As battery storage technology becomes more advanced and more accessible, prices should also drop, helping solar become an even larger contributor to the world's renewable energy production. The same idea is accurate for wind and hydro. We need better ways to store excess energy for all types of renewable energy sources that are cheap and efficient.
A study conducted by Finland's LUT University in partnership with the Energy Watch Group demonstrated how the world could transition to 100% renewable energy with zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Their findings calculated that if the world could produce all of its energy needs using renewable energy sources, it would ultimately be more cost-effective than the current fossil fuel and nuclear-based energy system. They also created a realistic model of what types of renewable energy sources would have to be utilized to maintain a world that gets 100% of its energy from renewable resources. The breakdown looked like this: 69% solar P.V., 18% wind energy, 6% biomass, 3% hydroelectric, and 2% geothermal3.
Is renewable energy profitable?
The short answer is yes, renewable energy is profitable. According to a study conducted by the Imperial College London and the International Energy Agency, renewable energy investments deliver massively better returns than fossil fuels in the U.S., U.K., and Europe. They looked at energy investment returns over a 5-year and 10-year period. When they looked at renewable energy investments in France and Germany, they found that the returns over five years totaled a 178.2% return on investment. For fossil fuels over the same period, there was a loss of nearly 20.7% investment.
However, fossil fuels did have some return on investments in the United States and the United Kingdom. During the same 5-year period, fossil fuels produced a return of 8.8% in the U.K. and 97.2% in the U.S. Compare that to renewable energy investments. However, you will see that the green energy investments had a much higher return. In the U.K., the return on investment for renewable energy was 75.4%, while it was closer to 200% in the U.S. The bottom line is that renewable energy is cheaper with a higher rate of return than fossil fuels in many circumstances. This will further push countries and private businesses to make investments in large-scale renewable energy projects4.
Is there a future in renewable energy?
Yes, it is hard to imagine a future where renewable energy is not a significant component of the fabric of our society. Renewable energy has been expanding rapidly in recent years. As the prices get cheaper and more governments and private businesses become aware of the potential returns on investment, this increase of renewable energy use we are currently experiencing will continue to grow. Now, the world gets 26% of its electricity from renewable resources, but by 2024, that number should increase to over 30%. In 2020 alone, there was a 45% increase in the world's current renewable energy capacity. Much of the increase from 2020 and the projected increase to 2024 will be due to increased wind and solar power. Two main statistics that will be instrumental in the continued growth of renewable energy utilization by 2024 include the following. First, solar power will continue to see reduced costs, and it is estimated that the costs associated with installing large-scale solar projects will decrease by 35% before the year 2024. Second, onshore wind energy capacity is projected to increase by as much as 57% by 2024. Countries like China, the U.S., and some E.U. member nations are expected to double down on wind energy and increase their wind energy capacity in the next few years. These facts above make excellent indicators that the world is moving in favor of renewable energy and that there will be an undeniable presence of renewable energy in the future5.
Which is better: renewable or nonrenewable resources?
In an ideal world, we would all use renewable resources every day. We would never use resources that release CO₂ and methane into the atmosphere; instead, we'd use resources that are clean, affordable, and accessible to everyone.
While fossil fuels are reliable and easily stored, they are running out. They pollute the air we breathe, cause climate change, are dangerous to produce, and kill wildlife when things go wrong.
While they're slightly less consistent (we can only use solar power when the sun shines, for example), renewable energy is instantly available. It does not require millions of years to form and develop, nor does it need to be transported over land and sea to be accessible. Renewable energy sources are better for the environment, and an increased reliance on wind and solar power will help improve global air quality.
Using renewable energy isn't just a case of making the responsible choice. When you choose to supply your home with renewable energy, you also give people in underserved communities quality air to breathe, prevent workplace deaths, increase local jobs, stop contributing to climate change, and so much more. If you care about the future of the planet, it's time to make the switch.
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