What is non-renewable energy?
Non-renewable energy is, as the name suggests, energy derived from fuels which cannot be immediately replaced. The main non-renewable sources of energy either derive from fossil deposits (oil, coal and gas - either manmade from coal or naturally occurring (natural gas) or are generated by power stations using fossil fuels (electricity generated by coal- and oil-fired power stations).
What are the consequences of using non-renewable energy?
Cost of production: Oil
Main costs are: drilling/exploration; extraction; transportation; refining.
Cost of production: Gas (natural)
Main costs are: drilling/exploration; extraction; building and servicing of pipelines.
Cost of production: Coal
Main costs are: extraction; transportation.
All fossil fuels (and wood fuel also) release greenhouse gases into the environment, believed to be the main cause of accelerating climate change. Although electricity is a 'clean' source of energy in this respect when in use, power stations generating electricity by burning fossil fuels are not. Electricity generation in the UK accounts for 30% of carbon dioxide emissions1.
Because they are not renewable, all fossil fuels and other forms of energy dependent on them are finite. They will eventually run out. There are many questions about sustainability: for instance, oil produced from conventional oil wells and other known available sources is projected to run out within the 21st century (see Factsheet 1), but there are oil reserves locked up in unexploited (and difficult to exploit) geological deposits which, at least in theory, could be used instead. The question, however, is not whether fossil fuels will run out, but when.
HEALTH & SAFETY ISSUES
Oil is a highly inflammable substance and there are therefore risks of fire and explosion in its production and transportation. These risks are well understood and the incidence of major fires at oil refineries and depots relatively low. However, such fires, as the recent fire at the Buncefield oil depot illustrates, can have a major impact on the immediate environment, producing toxic gases and threatening to poison water supplies. Oil spillages at sea are hazardous to marine and bird life.
Burning petrol in internal combustion engines is not only a major source of greenhouse gas emissions but a health hazard because of the production of ozone, nitrous oxide and particulates, which cause respiratory problems. Traffic pollution in cities has been linked with a steep rise in cases of asthma in the developed world.
Natural gas is also highly inflammable and the dangers of production therefore comparable to those for oil. When burned, gas produces carbon monoxide, which is highly poisonous - however this is not a problem when appliances are properly ventilated.
The main health hazard from coal is to miners, who can develop 'miner's lung' from inhaling coal dust. Although carbon monoxide is also produced by burning coal, it is generally burned domestically in an open grate, with any fumes dispersing up the chimney. However, the smoke from coal-burning fires does affect the lungs and before the invention of smokeless fuel was the main source of smog in London and other cities.
Governments need to take into account the economic, environmental and health and safety factors outlined above when considering the means of producing energy. A major factor is also the accessibility of energy sources. If energy sources are controlled outside the country which uses them it can cause problems (as with the recent cutting off by Russia of the gas pipeline to the Ukraine). Keeping the production of energy in all its stages within a country is therefore an attractive proposition.
page last updated 31 May 2006