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Over the last 200 years an ever-increasing proportion of our energy has come from non-

renewable sources such as oil and coal. While demand for energy rises these resources are
running out and scientists are exploring the potential of renewable sources of energy for the

Renewable and non-renewable energy

All life on earth is sustained by energy from the sun. Plants and animals can store energy and
some of this energy remains with them when they die. It is the remains of these ancient animals
and plants that make up fossil fuels.

Fossil fuels are non-renewable because they will run out one day. Burning fossil fuels generates
greenhouse gases and relying on them for energy generation is unsustainable. Hence the need to
find more renewable, sustainable ways of generating energy. Renewable or infinite energy
resources are sources of power that quickly replenish themselves and can be used again and

Some resources can be thought of as both renewable and non-renewable.

Wood can be used for fuel and is renewable if trees are replanted.
Biomass, which is material from living things, can be renewable if plants are replanted.

Non-renewable energy resources

Type of
Where it is from Advantages Disadvantages
Formed from
fossilised plants and
consisting of carbon
Ready-made fuel.
with various organic
It is relatively
and some inorganic
cheap to mine When burned coal gives
Coal and to convert off atmospheric
Mined from seams of
(fossil into energy. pollutants, including
coal, found
fuel) Coal supplies greenhouse gases.
sandwiched between
will last longer
layers of rock in the
than oil or gas.
Burnt to provide heat
or electricity.

Oil A carbon-based
Oil is a ready- When burned, it gives
(fossil liquid formed from
made fuel. off atmospheric
fuel) fossilised animals.
Type of
Where it is from Advantages Disadvantages
Lakes of oil are Relatively cheap pollutants, including
sandwiched between to extract and to greenhouse gases.
seams of rock in the convert into Only a limited supply.
earth. energy.
Pipes are sunk down
to the reservoirs to
pump the oil out.
Widely used in
industry and

Methane and some

other gases trapped
Gas is a ready-
between seams of
made fuel. When burned, it gives
rock under the earth's
It is a relatively off atmospheric
Natural surface.
cheap form of pollutants, including
gas Pipes are sunk into
energy. greenhouse gases.
(fossil the ground to release
It's a slightly Only limited supply of
fuel) the gas.
cleaner fuel than gas.
Often used in houses
coal and oil.
for heating and

Nuclear reactors are

expensive to run.
A small amount Nuclear waste is highly
Radioactive minerals
of radioactive toxic, and needs to be
such as uranium are
material produces safely stored for
a lot of energy. hundreds or thousands
Electricity is
Raw materials of years (storage is
generated from the
are relatively extremely expensive).
energy that is
Nuclear cheap and can Leakage of nuclear
released when the
last quite a long materials can have a
atoms of these
time. devastating impact on
minerals are split (by
It doesn't give off people and the
nuclear fission) in
atmospheric environment. The worst
nuclear reactors.
pollutants. nuclear reactor accident
was at Chernobyl,
Ukraine in 1986.

Biomass energy is When burned, it gives

It is a cheap and
generated from off atmospheric
Biomass readily available
decaying plant or pollutants, including
source of energy.
animal waste. greenhouse gases. If
Type of
Where it is from Advantages Disadvantages
It can also be an If the crops are crops are not replanted,
organic material replaced, biomass biomass is a non-
which is burned to can be a long- renewable resource.
provide energy, eg term, sustainable
heat, or electricity. energy source.
An example of
biomass energy is
oilseed rape (yellow
flowers you see in
the UK in summer),
which produces oil.
After treatment with
chemicals it can be
used as a fuel in
diesel engines.

A cheap and
readily available When burned it gives off
source of energy. atmospheric pollutants,
Obtained from felling
If the trees are including greenhouse
trees, burned to
replaced, wood gases.
Wood generate heat and
burning can be a If trees are not
long-term, replanted wood is a
sustainable non-renewable resource.
energy source.

How long will fossil fuels last?

Estimates from international organisations suggest that if the world's demand for energy from
fossil fuels continues at the present rate that oil and gas reserves may run out within some of our
lifetimes. Coal is expected to last longer.

Estimated length of time left for fossil fuels

Fossil fuel Time left
Oil 50 years
Natural gas70 years
Coal 250 years
Renewable energy sources
Renewable energy sources quickly replenish themselves and can be used again and again. For
this reason they are sometimes called infinite energy resources.

The advantages and disadvantages of renewable energy

Type of energy Where it is from Advantages Disadvantages
Energy from infinite energy
Manufacture and
sunlight is captured supply.
implementation of
in solar panels Single dwellings
Solar solar panels can be
and converted into can have own
electricity. electricity

Manufacture and
Can be found
implementation of
singularly, but
Wind turbines wind farms can be
usually many
(modern costly.
together in wind
windmills) turn Some local people
Wind farms.
wind energy into object to on-shore
electricity. wind farms, arguing
infinite energy
that it spoils the

The movement of Construction of

tides drives barrage is very
turbines. Ideal for an costly.
A tidal barrage (a island such as Only a few estuaries
kind of dam) is the UK. are suitable.
built across Potential to Opposed by some
estuaries, forcing generate a lot of environmental
Tidal water through energy. groups as having a
gaps. Tidal barrage negative impact on
In future can double as a wildlife.
underwater bridge, and help May reduce tidal
turbines may be prevent flooding. flow and impede
possible out at sea flow of sewage out
and without dams. to sea.

The movement of Ideal for an Construction can be

seawater in and out island country. costly.
Type of energy Where it is from Advantages Disadvantages
of a cavity on the More likely to be May be opposed by
shore compresses small local local or
trapped air, driving operations, environmental
a turbine. rather than done groups.
on a national

Can be expensive to
In volcanic regions
set up and only
it is possible to use
Potentially works in areas of
the natural heat of
infinite energy volcanic activity.
the earth.
supply. Geothermal and
Cold water is
Used volcanic activity
pumped under
successfully in might calm down,
Geothermal ground and comes
some countries, leaving power
out as steam.
such as New stations redundant.
Steam can be used
Zealand and Dangerous elements
for heating or to
Iceland. found underground
power turbines
must be disposed of
creating electricity.

Costly to build.
Can cause the
Energy harnessed flooding of
Creates water
from the movement surrounding
Hydrological or reserves as well
of water through communities and
Hydroelectric as energy
rivers, lakes and landscapes.
Power (HEP) supplies.
dams. Dams have major
ecological impacts
on local hydrology.

Decaying plant or
animal waste.
When burned, it
An organic It is a cheap and
gives off
material, which can readily available
be burned to source of energy.
pollutants, including
provide energy, eg If replaced,
greenhouse gases.
Biomass heat, or electricity. biomass can be a
Biomass is only a
An example of long-term,
renewable resource
biomass energy is sustainable
if crops are
oilseed rape (the energy source.
fields of yellow
flowers you see in
the UK in
Type of energy Where it is from Advantages Disadvantages
summer), which
produces oil.
After treatment
with chemicals it
can be used as a
fuel in diesel

A cheap and When burned it

readily available gives off
source of energy. atmospheric
Obtained from
If the trees are pollutants, including
felling trees,
replaced, wood greenhouse gases.
Wood burned to generate
burning can be a If trees are not
heat and light.
long-term, replantedthen wood
sustainable is a non-renewable
energy source resource.

Case study: changing energy use in UK

The UK government wants to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions. It also wants to increase the
amount of energy which comes from renewable sources.

By 2020 European Union targets state that 20% of energy must come from renewable sources.
Each member state of the EU may have a different target, as 20% is an average figure for the

The UK has a target of 15% of its energy consumption being sourced from renewable energy. (In
2009 only 3% of energy came from renewable sources in the UK). Sweden has a target of nearly
50% whereas Malta has a target of 10%.

The EU also aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80-95% below 1990 levels by 2050.

There are two ways the energy use can change in the UK:

Reducing the demand for energy

Increasing the supply of renewable energy

Reducing energy demand

The demand for energy in the UK varies. This is because of:

Economic factors: For example during the recession energy demand did not increase as
Seasonal factors: For example the demand for domestic energy over winter is greater than over
the summer.
Temporal factors: For example at night there is surplus energy on the national grid because
demand is lower

Regulations have forced vehicles to become more energy-efficient and give off less atmospheric
pollution. The government has also continued to increase fuel and road taxes. Even so, the use of
transport is rising so fast that the amount of CO2 given off by transport vehicles continues to rise.

There are also incentives to save energy for example grants are available to help make a home
more energy efficient. Find out more about energy efficient homes in the Waste and pollution
revision bite.

Renewable power

UK power companies are now investing hundreds of millions of pounds in renewable power.
The greatest amount of renewable energy in the UK comes from wind generation. In 2010 the
worlds largest offshore wind farm was opened in Thanet, on the Thames estuary.

Wind Turbines on Ovenden Moor, West Yorkshire

Many wind farms have been set up, particularly in Scotland and Wales. However some plans for
large wind farms have been blocked by planners.


Production of energy from biomass is expanding. In 2011 a new biomass energy centre was
opened in Chilton, Durham. The supply of energy for biomass is more predictable than other
forms of renewable energy. However people are concerned about how sustainable the sourcing
of biomass is.

Wave and tidal

Energy from wave and tidal power could be developed more.