Differences Between Renewable and Nonrenewable Energy Resources

Solar panels harvest the light from the sun, a renewable resource.
Solar panels harvest the light from the sun, a renewable resource. (Image: Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images)

Energy is the foundation of our civilization. We use natural resources for energy in just about everything we do: manufacturing, agriculture, transportation, electricity. All of the resources we use for our energy needs can be classified as either renewable or nonrenewable. Currently the vast majority of the energy we use comes from nonrenewable resources, with a variety of detrimental environmental effects. As scientists have begun to realize the true depth of environmental damage from the use of nonrenewable resources, there has been a push towards research and development of renewable resources. Most agree this is the only way to a sustainable society.


Renewable resources from natural sources such as the sun, wind, tides, rain and geothermal heat are, by definition, replaced at least as fast as the demand for them. Nonrenewable resources, on the other hand, are finite. They include oil, natural gas, nuclear fission and coal. These resources are currently relatively plentiful, but the more demand for these resources, the faster they will run out. (see ref 1, 2)

Environmental Impact

Another important difference between the two types of energy resources is their environmental impact. Nonrenewable resources, most notably fossil fuels like oil and coal, are the primary suspected cause of global climate change and the cause of most air pollution. The acquisition of these resources also has huge social and environmental impacts. Renewable resources have some degree of negative impact, but generally much less so.

Cost and Infrastructure

Modern civilization was built on, and still heavily depends on, nonrenewable resources. The vast majority of our energy consumption infrastructure is set up around the use of fossil fuels, the primary nonrenewable resources. Because of this, it is currently easier and cheaper to use nonrenewable energy sources, even though the social and environmental impact is clearly much worse.

When Renewable Resources Become Nonrenewable

Resources such as the sun, tides and geothermal energy are forces of nature, and they will provide energy endlessly. Other resources are inherently renewable, but become nonrenewable when demand outpaces the ability of the Earth to replenish them. A good example of this is deforestation. In the ancient world, smelters burned trees for forging metals, and people to this day still use them for cooking fires and heat. The modern-day Middle East region is a prime example of what happens when a renewable resource becomes nonrenewable. The ancient destruction of the once-lush cedar forests of Lebanon has left the country arid and desert-like. Similar destruction continues worldwide to this day.

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