What Are Nonrenewable Resources?

A nonrenewable resource is a natural substance that is not replenished with the speed at which it is consumed. It is a finite resource.

Fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas, and coal are examples of nonrenewable resources. Humans constantly draw on the reserves of these substances while the formation of new supplies takes eons.

Renewable resources are the opposite: Their supply replenishes naturally or can be sustained. The sunlight used in solar power and the wind used to power wind turbines replenish themselves. Timber reserves can be sustained through replanting.

Understanding Nonrenewable Resources

Nonrenewable resources come from the Earth. Humans extract them in gas, liquid, or solid form and then convert them for their use, mainly related to energy. The reserves of these substances took billions of years to form, and it will take billions of years to replace the supplies used.

Key Takeaways

  • A nonrenewable resource is a substance that is being used up more quickly than it can replace itself. Its supply is finite.
  • Most fossil fuels, minerals, and metal ores are nonrenewable resources.
  • Renewable resources such as solar and wind power and water are unlimited in supply.

In economic terms, nonrenewables are resources of economic value that cannot be readily replaced at the speed with which they are being consumed.

Examples of nonrenewable resources include crude oil, natural gas, coal, and uranium. These are all resources that are processed into products that can be used commercially.

For example, the fossil fuel industry extracts crude oil from the ground and converts it to gasoline. Fossil fuel liquids also are refined into petrochemical products that are used as ingredients in the manufacture of literally hundreds of products from plastics and polyurethane to solvents.

Fossil Fuels Vs. Nonrenewables

Fossil fuels are all nonrenewable. But not all nonrenewables are fossil fuels. Crude oil, natural gas, and coal are all considered fossil fuels, but uranium is not. Rather, it is a heavy metal that is extracted as a solid and then converted by nuclear power plants into a fuel source.

In the language of economics, nonrenewables are resources that cannot be replaced at the speed with which they are being consumed.

All of these nonrenewable resources have proved historically to be valuable energy sources that are inexpensive to extract. Storage, conversion, and shipping are easy and cheap.

Fuels created from nonrenewable resources are still the primary source of all the power generated in the world due to their affordability and high energy content.

Other Types of Nonrenewable Resources

Most nonrenewable resources are formed from organic carbon material which is heated and compressed over time, changing their form into crude oil or natural gas.

The term nonrenewable resource also refers to minerals and metals from the earth, such as gold, silver, and iron. These are similarly formed by a long-term geological process. They are often costly to mine, as they are usually deep within the Earth's crust. But they are much more abundant than fossil fuels.

Some types of groundwater are considered nonrenewable resources if the aquifer is unable to be replenished at the same rate at which it's drained.

Renewable Growth

Following the basic rule of supply and demand, the cost to obtain nonrenewable resources will continue to rise as they become scarcer. Supply for many of these fuels is in danger of running out completely. Eventually, their prices will hit a point that end users cannot afford, forcing a move toward alternative energy sources.

Meanwhile, concern over the impact of fossil fuel use on the environment and its contribution to global warming is growing. The first international agreement on fighting climate change was the Kyoto Protocol, adopted in 1997.

One caveat is that the alternatives require ample lead time to be put into place. That process has begun slowly. Wind power generated about 6.3% of American electrical power in 2017. About 1.6% of American electricity was supplied by solar power as of the end of 2017. Plug-in electric vehicles had a market share of a bit over 2% in 2018.