Online College Courses for Credit

2 Tutorials that teach Non-Renewable Energy
Take your pick:
Non-Renewable Energy

Non-Renewable Energy

Author: Sophia Tutorial

Recognize the impacts of non-renewable energy resources.

See More

what's covered
This tutorial will cover the topic of non-renewable energy. We will discuss how it is produced using finite fuel sources, and we will cover the formation of its primary source, which is fossil fuels. We will discuss the four major sources of non-renewable energy: oil, natural gas, coal, and nuclear energy, as well as their impacts. Lastly, we will explore the future of fossil fuels.

Our discussion breaks down as follows:

  1. Formation of Non-Renewable Energy
  2. Sources of Non-Renewable Energy
    1. Oil
    2. Natural Gas
    3. Coal
    4. Nuclear Energy
  3. Future of Fossil Fuels

1. Formation of Non-Renewable Energy

Unlike renewable energy, non-renewable energy is produced using finite fuel sources, the vast majority of which are fossil fuels such as coal, natural gas, and oil.

Fossil fuels that we use today were actually created millions of years ago. Fossil fuels are formed when microorganisms and organic matter, such as peat moss decay, get buried under sediment and undergo high levels of pressure and heat over a long period of time -- thousands or millions of years -- until they eventually become a fossil fuel.

Formation of Fossil Fuels

One of the primary reasons fossil fuels are so useful is that their formation compresses large amounts of organic matter and its energy into a small space. The result is an extremely energy-dense fuel source. While this process has not stopped and is even happening right now, the organic material currently being turned into fossil fuels won't be ready for millions of years.

Because of the length of formation, fossil fuels are generally considered to be finite because they won't be replenished in a reasonable human lifespan or would be too costly to access.

2. Sources of Non-renewable Energy

There are four major sources of non-renewable energy. The first three are fossil fuels -- coal, oil, and natural gas -- and the fourth is nuclear energy, which is a non-fossil fuel.

2a. Oil
Oil is a hydrocarbon liquid, found underground, and it is burned for energy. Oil is prized worldwide as one of the most valuable substances on Earth. It has a wide variety of uses, from providing fuel for transportation to being an ingredient in petrochemical products, such as plastic.

Oil Barrels


To provide some context on just how valuable oil is globally, look at the diagram below. At the making of this tutorial, annual worldwide oil production and consumption equals 1 cubic mile, meaning that if you made a glass cube one mile across, one mile deep, and one mile high, it would barely hold the oil used by all humans in one year.

Cubic Mile

A cube that size makes the Golden Gate Bridge look small!

Peak oil is a point in time where the historical maximum rate of oil production will be reached before it begins to decline. Peak oil looks something like the graph below. Currently, world oil supplies are peaking, yet global demand for oil is still increasing.

Peak Oil Graph

If not managed properly, oil can have widespread negative impacts.

Negative Impacts of Oil
Environmental Human Health
Water and land pollution from oil spills and leaks, which can damage flora and fauna.

Air pollution from burning, which can lead to climate change.
Respiratory diseases from fumes

Cancer from exposure to benzene compounds

2b. Natural Gas
Natural gas -- a fossil fuel -- comes from pockets of hydrocarbon gas, such as methane, that are found naturally occurring underground, and are harvested to be burned for heating and electricity.

Natural Gas Plant

Natural gas has both environmental and human health concerns.

Negative Impacts of Natural Gas
Environmental Human Health
Distribution lines can damage habitat

It can contaminate water supplies.

Burning it produces CO2 and other air pollutants that can contribute to climate change.
Respiratory illnesses like asthma, emphysema, and bronchitis, which can be exacerbated by the gases and air pollution it produces.


In recent years, natural gas production and consumption have drastically increased due to new technology such as hydraulic fracturing -- also called fracking -- to allow humans to reach previously-challenging pockets of natural gas. Fracking can cause water pollution issues because it requires liquids being pumped underground at high pressures to fracture the earth. The result can then leak these liquids into the water table.

2c. Coal
Coal, another fossil fuel, is widely available and used to heat water boilers. The boilers produce steam that, in turn, spins a turbine in a generator to create electricity.

Coal Plant

Coal can have impacts on the environment and human health.

Negative Impacts of Coal
Environmental Human Health
Acid rain from sulfur dioxide

Respiratory problems in animals, which can result from inhaling particulate matter

Mining operations, which generate water pollution if not properly managed

Carbon dioxide production, which can contribute to climate change
Respiratory problems

Heavy metal toxicity

Despite coal's rise over the last century, it has recently been declining as natural gas use has increased and government regulations have enforced emission requirements.

2d. Nuclear Energy
Nuclear energy, which is not a fossil fuel, harnesses the heat generated from the radioactive decay of a particular form of uranium. Nuclear energy is considered finite and non-renewable because it is dependent on mined minerals, which take long periods of time to form. Nuclear energy is used for electricity production and accounts for 6% of the world's energy, and 13% to 14% of its electricity.

Nuclear Plant

Nuclear energy also has negative impacts on the environment and human health.

Negative Impacts of Nuclear Energy
Environmental Human Health
Damage flora and fauna if its reactor or storage tanks leak

Hazardous far beyond its immediate vicinity because radioactive material can travel long distances and affect locations thousands of miles away
Linked to causing cancer

big idea
Nuclear energy becomes particularly problematic when it comes time to shut down a plant because the waste stays radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years, so storing it is a challenge.

did you know
Since 1996, no new nuclear plants have been brought online in the United States. However, there is one scheduled to come online in 2015.

3. Future of Fossil Fuels

Fossil fuels' popularity worldwide as an energy source has resulted from their abundance globally and their energy-dense nature. However, at their current rate of use and the fact that they take millions of years to form, they are eventually going to be depleted. This means that renewable energies, or some other energy form, are going to have to take up the fossil fuels' part of the energy mix, or energy demand will need to drastically decrease.

Today we learned about non-renewable energy, which is produced using finite fuel sources, the vast majority of which are fossil fuels such as coal, natural gas, and oil. We learned about the formation of fossil fuels and discussed the four main sources of non-renewable energy: oil, natural gas, coal -- which are all fossil fuels -- and nuclear energy, which is not a fossil fuel. Lastly, we learned about the impacts of non-renewable energy sources and the future of fossil fuels.