Renewable and nonrenewable resources are energy sources that human society uses to function on a daily basis. The difference between these two types of resources is that renewable resources can naturally replenish themselves while nonrenewable resources cannot. This means that nonrenewable resources are limited in supply and cannot be used sustainably.

There are four major types of nonrenewable resources: oil, natural gas, coal, and nuclear energy. Oil, natural gas, and coal are collectively called fossil fuels. Fossil fuels were formed within the Earth from dead plants and animals over millions of years—hence the name “fossil” fuels. They are found in underground layers of rock and sediment. Pressure and heat worked together to transform the plant and animal remains into crude oil (also known as petroleum), coal, and natural gas.  

The plants and animals that became fossil fuels lived in a time called Carboniferous Period, around 300 to 360 million years ago. The energy in the plant and animal remains originally came from the sun; through the process of photosynthesis, solar energy is stored in plant tissues, which animals then consume, adding the energy to their own bodies. When fossil fuels are burned, this trapped energy is released.  

Crude oil is a liquid fuel fossil fuel that is used mostly to produce gasoline and diesel fuel for vehicles, and for the manufacturing of plastics. It is found in rocks below Earth’s surface and is pumped out through wells. 

Natural gas is widely used for cooking and for heating homes. It consists mostly of methane and is found near oil deposits below Earth’s surface. Natural gas can be pumped out through the same wells used for extracting crude oil. 

Coal is a solid fossil fuel that is used for heating homes and generating power plants. It is found in fossilized swamps that have been buried beneath layers of sediment. Since coal is solid, it cannot be extracted in the same manner as crude oil or natural gas; it must be dug up from the ground. 

Nuclear energy comes from radioactive elements, mainly uranium, which is extracted from mined ore and then refined into fuel. 

Unfortunately, human society is—for the time being—dependent on nonrenewable resources as its primary source of energy. Approximately 80 percent of the total amount of energy used globally each year comes from fossil fuels. We depend on fossil fuels because they are energy-rich and relatively cheap to process. But a major problem with fossil fuels, aside from their being in limited supply, is that burning them releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Rising levels of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the main cause of global warming. 

Alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar energy, are a possible solution to the depletion of nonrenewable sources. Both of these clean energy sources are available in unlimited supply.


Nonrenewable Resources

An aerial view of a coal-fired power plant in Mount Storm, West Virginia, taken in June 2012.

Carboniferous Period

period of the Paleozoic Era that follows the Devonian Period and comes before the Permian Period.


gradual changes in all the interconnected weather elements on our planet.


dark, solid fossil fuel mined from the earth.


to use up.

noun, adjective

liquid fuel (usually a type of petroleum) used to propel diesel engines. Also called diesel oil and diesel fuel.

fossil fuel

coal, oil, or natural gas. Fossil fuels formed from the remains of ancient plants and animals.


material that provides power or energy.


liquid mixture made from oil and used to run many motor vehicles.


to create or begin.


chemical compound that is the basic ingredient of natural gas.


energy resources that are exhaustible relative to the human life span, such as gas, coal, or petroleum.


energy released by reactions among the nuclei of atoms.


deposit in the Earth of minerals containing valuable metal.

power plant

industrial facility for the generation of electric energy.


having unstable atomic nuclei and emitting subatomic particles and radiation.

renewable energy

energy obtained from sources that are virtually inexhaustible and replenish naturally over small time scales relative to the human life span.


radiation from the sun.


chemical element with the symbol U. Fuel used to produce nuclear energy.


kinetic energy produced by the movement of air, able to be converted to mechanical power.