While the universe is infinitely expanding, that certainly doesn’t mean that things within the universe are infinite, too. In fact, the very resources that power the Earth are running out.
Only 11 percent of U.S. energy consumption in 2017 was generated from renewable energy sources. The rest was powered by nonrenewable, or finite, resources. So what are these nonrenewable resources and how can we protect them?
What qualifies as a nonrenewable resource?
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, nonrenewable resources are any resources that “do not form or replenish in a short period of time.” The most common nonrenewable resources include fossil fuels like crude oil, natural gas, and coal, as well as uranium nuclear energy.
Fossil fuels are formed from organic carbon material that has been heated and compressed over millions of years. To put it another way—our most frequently used energy sources like oil and coal are made from the buried remains of plants and animals from millions of years ago.
Earth minerals and metal ores like gold, silver, and iron are sometimes also considered to be nonrenewable resources since they’re similarly formed from geological processes that span millions of years. On the other hand, renewable resources include solar power, wind power, and sustainably harvested timber. They’re renewable because they can be reasonably harvested or created within meaningful timeframes to match demand.
Essentially, a nonrenewable resource is something that can’t be replaced naturally to keep up with human consumption. Because we can’t readily make more oil or coal to use now, nonrenewable resources can also be thought of as finite resources.
Right now, these finite resources are the world’s primary source of power. Thanks to their high energy content, relative affordability, and the current systems in place, our world still runs largely on nonrenewable energy sources.
But this can’t remain true forever. Fossil fuels have adverse environmental effects like climate change—and they’re of a limited quantity. As fossil fuels become more scarce, they’ll become more expensive and less accessible.
Breaking down the most common nonrenewable resources
Crude oil is a fossil fuel that’s used to make gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel, heating oil, lubricating oils, and asphalt. This nonrenewable resource is a liquid that’s extracted from underground reservoirs, sedimentary rocks, and tar sands. The crude oil is shipped to refineries where it’s separated into petroleum products.
Natural gas is obtained by drilling into rock formations that contain natural gas deposits. There are several places natural gas can be obtained:
- Conventional natural gas is found in large cracks and spaces in rock formations
- Shale gas or unconventional natural gas is found in tiny pores within rocks
- Associated natural gas is found in crude oil deposits
When natural gas is withdrawn from its origin, it contains natural gas liquids (NGLs) like ethane, propane, butanes, pentanes, and water vapor. This wet natural gas is sent to processing plants where the NGLs are removed from methane. The methane in natural gas is used in fuel.
Coal is a sedimentary rock that contains carbon and hydrocarbons. It’s a fossil fuel that takes millions of years to form and contains energy stored by plants. There are four types of coal:
- Anthracite has the highest heating value and contains 86-97 percent carbon; it’s used in the metals industry.
- Bituminous coal contains 45-86 percent carbon and is the most abundant type of coal found in the United States; it’s used for generating energy and for making iron and steel.
- Subbituminous coal contains 35-45 percent carbon and has the lowest heating value among the four types of coal.
- Lignite contains 25-35 percent carbon and has the lowest energy content among the four types of goal as well as the highest moisture content; it’s used to generate electricity.
Uranium isn’t a fossil fuel, but it’s still considered a common nonrenewable resource. While uranium is a common metal found in rocks, U-235 is a component of uranium that’s very rare. U-235 is extracted from uranium and processed to be used as fuel in nuclear plants for nuclear fission.
Nonrenewable resource statistics
- According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the global supply of crude oil is only sufficient to meet human demand through the year 2050.
- Fossil fuels formed around 360-300 million years ago, during the Carboniferous Period.
- Ten feet of solid vegetation compressed and heated over millions of years creates just one foot of coal.
- Approximately 50 percent of U.S. electricity is generated from coal.
- Oil platforms are some of the largest manmade structures in the world. (As an example, Berkut is a 200,000-ton oil rig located off the coast of Russia.)
- About 50 percent of the crude oil in the world is converted into gasoline.
- Natural gas in rock formations underground is measured in million, billion, or trillion cubic meters.
Sixty-six percent of the world’s energy is generated from fossil fuels, while eight percent is generated from nuclear energy.
How to protect nonrenewable resources
Our society is dependent on nonrenewable resources that have expiration dates. For this reason, it’s important to promote alternative energy sources, including renewable resources like solar and wind power.
Reducing our reliance on nonrenewable resources and expanding our renewable energy usage is one of the keys to a sustainable future. This movement includes both big, sweeping structural changes like the Paris Agreement, and the choices that businesses and individuals can make every single day.
Actions like driving electric and hybrid vehicles, installing solar panels on and properly insulating your business and home, and using energy-efficient appliances are all smaller-scale changes that you can make to reduce your nonrenewable resource usage.
If you are interested in learning more about the circular economy, take a look at our recent blog post on the latest sustainability trends.
David Rachelson is Vice President of Sustainability at Rubicon Global. To stay ahead of Rubicon’s announcements of new partnerships and collaborations around the world, be sure to follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, or contact us today.