Nonrenewable Resources

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 energy and the wind used to power wind turbines replenish themselves. Timber reserves can be sustained through replanting.

Key Takeaways

  • A nonrenewable resource is a substance that is being used up more quickly than it can replace itself.
  • By definition, the supply of a nonrenewable resource 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.

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.

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.

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.

However, 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.

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

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; in 2020, it was the source of about 8.4%. About 1.6% of American electricity was supplied by solar power as of the end of 2018; in 2020, it had risen to 2.3%.

In the U.S., plug-in electric vehicles had a market share of a bit over 2% in 2018. By the end of 2021, research firm IHS Markit predicts that all-electric car sales would surpass 3.5% nationally.

What Defines a Nonrenewable Resource?

Nonrenewable resources are derived from the Earth— in a finite supply that can take billions of years to replenish. Historically, many nonrenewables have been relatively cheap to extract. But as their supply continues to diminish, the cost of this extraction may rise in price, leading customers to use alternative sources, such as solar and wind energy.

What Are the Different Types of Nonrenewable Resources?

Among the most common examples of natural resources are crude oil, coal, uranium, and mineral sources such as gold. One subset of nonrenewable resources includes crude oil and natural gas. Both of these substances are made out of organic carbon material, depending on the form it takes after heating and compressing over time. Another form of nonrenewables is minerals, which include gold, silver, and iron. Unlike crude oil and natural gas, these are quite difficult and expensive to extract. Meanwhile, different types of groundwater are nonrenewables when they do not replenish at their draining speed.

How Do Nonrenewables Differ From Renewable Resources?

Since nonrenewables, by definition, will diminish in supply over time, the law of supply and demand suggests that their price will continue to rise. Renewables, by contrast, have an infinite supply. However, at the same time, the cost and time required to establish them will be lengthy. More recently, demand for renewables has grown in tandem with governmental incentives, with many of their costs decreasing over time. Solar energy is one prime example of this trend.

Article Sources

Investopedia requires writers to use primary sources to support their work. These include white papers, government data, original reporting, and interviews with industry experts. We also reference original research from other reputable publishers where appropriate. You can learn more about the standards we follow in producing accurate, unbiased content in our editorial policy.
  1. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. "What is the Kyoto Protocol?" Accessed Oct. 26, 2021.

  2. U.S. Department of Energy. "Wind Technologies Market Report." Accessed Oct. 26, 2021.

  3. U.S. Energy Information Administration. "Electricity Explained: Electricity in the United States." Accessed Oct. 26, 2021.

  4. Solstice. "Solar Energy Statistics: 44 Numbers That Define U.S. Solar." Accessed Oct. 26, 2021.

  5. Pew Research Center. "Europe Leads the Way in New Electric Vehicle Sales." Accessed Oct. 26, 2021.

  6. IHS Markit. "Electric Vehicle Share in the US Reaches Record Levels in 2020, According to IHS Markit." Accessed Oct. 26, 2021.

Take the Next Step to Invest
The offers that appear in this table are from partnerships from which Investopedia receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where listings appear. Investopedia does not include all offers available in the marketplace.