The first commercial coal production began in the United States in 1748. Ever since then, nonrenewable energy has been one of the cornerstones of human civilization. It has been used to provide electricity, locomotion and power. Today, 1.1 billion tons of coal is used every year. But nonrenewable energy isn’t simply a matter of looking to the past. New technologies to exploit this kind of energy will prove pivotal for the future.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, there are two main types of energy sources: renewable and nonrenewable. Nonrenewable sources of energy are limited in supply and cannot readily be replenished. This is opposed to renewable sources like solar and geothermal, which can be made again in a short period of time. All energy, technically, is finite, but nonrenewable sources can only be synthesized through long, complicated natural processes.
Nonrenewable sources of energy usually refer to coal, natural gas, oil and all oil derivative products such as gasoline and propane. However, it can also refer to nuclear fuel made from uranium, which cannot be renewed. Uranium is an element that naturally decays, and it can only be made from other elements that decay. Fossil fuels, on the other hand, are made from the pressure and heat applied to organic matter over the course of millions of years. Much of the fossil fuels found now are from the Carboniferous Period about 360 to 286 million years ago.
Most renewable energy tends to involve exploiting the energy that is already there in the photons of the sun, the power of the wind and the movement of water. Fossil fuels, on the other hand, must be burned to create energy. Burning creates steam, which is converted into mechanical energy. This in turn spins a generator to create electricity. Nuclear power releases energy by splitting the nucleus of an atom.
The Renewable Energy Policy Network states that fossil fuels made up 79 percent of the global energy consumption by the end of 2006. Nuclear fuel constituted an additional 3 percent, bringing the nonrenewable total to 82 percent. Renewable sources of energy only made up for the final 18 percent. In terms of global electricity output, fossil fuels accounted for 67 percent and nuclear power 14 percent.
The major disadvantage to nonrenewable sources is their waste output. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that fossil fuel combustion in the United States produced 5.57 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2008. Natural gas tends to burn a little cleaner than the others, but all fossil fuels create waste. Furthermore, nuclear power produces radioactive waste. Although it can take a while to decay, there are protocols in place to ensure that the waste is disposed of safely.