Although they powered the industrial and technological revolutions from the late 19th to early 21st century, fossil fuels and other non renewable energy sources give many critics pause. While nobody doubts their contributions to the economic progress of the world, some contend that the continued use of these resources poses a serious threat to the existential future of our planet. How, then, do we think about fossil fuels? We begin by weighing the pros and cons of non renewable energy.
The Pros of Non Renewable Energy
In terms of bang for the buck, non renewable fuels have little competition. An estimated 85 percent of the world’s energy is generated by fossil fuels like petroleum, coal and natural gas. Meanwhile nuclear power—its uranium source is non renewable—accounts for another 14 percent.
These in-ground supplies yield more energy for less money when comparing extraction costs to the erection of wind turbines or solar panels, for example. Measured in joules per kilogram, the calorific value (i.e. the internal energy quantity) of non renewable bests that of alternative origins. Quality of life begins with the price of energy supplies.
An important factor among the pros and cons of non renewable energy is safety. How secure is the matter to transport? Despite media coverage of oil spills and rig fires, statistics demonstrate that these incidents are rare. The carbon and hydrogen molecules that compose fossil fuels are quite stable.
Properly stored and maintained, non renewables are left intact and protected by increasingly sophisticated improvements in technology. While the possibility of combustion or leakage is never eradicated, likelihood of accident remains quite low as a function of total energy usage. Unlike other chemical compounds, these fuels do not evolve into different substances in storage.
There are sufficient stores of non renewable energy well into the future, even at the present rate of consumption. Any assessment of the pros and cons of non renewable energy should note this reality. Even those opposed to oil, coal and natural gas acknowledge the vast amount held in the earth. Moreover, advances in extraction techniques promise access to reserves previously thought unattainable.
The advent of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is a contemporary illustration of this phenomenon. In fact, this technique releases natural gas and oil from once impenetrable rock formations. There is high confidence that fossil fuels will remain abundant well into the 22nd century.
Wind and solar power are attractive supplemental sources but they are less dependable than non renewables. Conditioned on weather and atmospheric circumstances, these celebrated alternatives perform inadequately when clouds pervade and winds die down. Dealing with the variability in generation by these specific renewable modes, power grid stewards must make expensive accommodations to provide back-up capacity.
By contrast, fossil fuels represent a constant and consistent supply of usable energy. Furthermore, power utilities need not amend their infrastructure and pass the price of such reconstruction on to the customer. It might not be cutting-edge, but sometimes the tried and true is the best way forward.
The Cons of Non Renewable Energy
Abundant, Not Infinite
While there may be plenty of non renewable energy, there is also a good deal of demand, which is growing every day. As formerly second-tier economies like China and India come into their own, the appetite for electricity increases significantly. Over the last 10 years, the People’s Republic of China gets credit for 60 percent of the increase in global oil consumption.
Not to be ignored, India—currently a modest oil consumer—will make far greater claims on the international supply by 2025, according to economic forecasts. Taiwan struggles to provide enough energy for its populace. Even the vast stores of fossil fuels on earth can dissipate if international thirst continues to intensify.
Subject to Political Manipulation
A huge player in the history of oil is OPEC, or the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. Decades ago, this group wrought economic havoc in the United States by embargoing its petroleum over a geopolitical disagreement. Indeed, the pros and cons of non renewable energy can not leave out politics.
Even in 2017, countries like Russia, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia work to keep oil prices high in order to fund their domestic and foreign policy aims. As long as petroleum is the go-to energy source, unfriendly regimes will gain economic and military strength.
Non renewable energy critics make their strongest objections to fossil fuels when it comes to the environment. It is this group of materials that contributes so severely to climate change and air pollution. Releasing nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere, these substances are responsible for respiratory ailments and acid rain. Worse, their carbon emissions block heat from escaping the atmosphere, contributing to anthropogenic climate change. Among the pros and cons of non renewable energy, this is a substantial negative.
Dangerous to Life on Earth
There are valid arguments for nuclear power as a renewable resource. This classification means that the source—e.g. hydro, solar, biomass, wind and geothermal—is regenerated in perpetuity. Yet the fact that uranium is an essential prerequisite for the synthesis of nuclear energy leads most scientists to view it as non renewable.
That being the case, it is a highly volatile and hazardous form albeit controlled and stored safely, for the most part. However, recent history proves that nuclear facilities are not invulnerable to accidents and leakage, as the Japanese tsunami proved in 2011.
The pros and cons of non renewable energy compel consumers and governments to take a hard look at what and how much we use. A judicious shift to more renewable sources is prudent under the right conditions. Important to remember is that fossil fuels and nuclear power are responsible for many positive technological strides. Replacing them should be an incremental process. After all, a healthy planet and economic growth complement each other.