Energy resources

There are different energy resources in the world and the amount of energy stored by them varies greatly. For example, the amount of nuclear energy stored within 1 kg of uranium is enormous, but the gravitational potential energy stored by many thousands of tonnes of water held back by a dam is less.

Renewable or non-renewable

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A renewable energy resource is one that is being (or can be) replenished as fast (or faster) than it is used.

Renewable resources are replenished either by:

  • human action - eg trees cut down for biofuel are replaced by planting new trees
  • natural processes - eg water let through a dam for hydroelectricity is replaced through the water cycle

A non-renewable energy resource is one that is not being replenished as it is being used. It will eventually run out when all reserves have been used up.

Different energy sources

The table below shows the main features of the most common energy resources used today.

Nine different energy resources, fossil fuels, nuclear, bio, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, tides, sun, water waves; illustrated around a main label.
EnergyEnergy storeRenewable or non-renewableUsesPower outputImpact on environment
Fossil fuels (oil, coal and natural gases)ChemicalNon-renewableTransport, heating, electricity generationHighReleases CO2 (causes global warming)
Nuclear fuelsNuclearNon-renewableElectricity generationVery high Radioactive waste (needs to be disposed of safely)
BiofuelChemicalRenewable Transport, heating, electricity generation Medium Carbon-neutral so low impact
WindKineticRenewable Electricity generationVery lowTake up large areas that could be used for farming, people say windmills spoil their view
HydroelectricityGravitational potentialRenewableElectricity generationMediumLocal habitats are affected by the large areas that need to be flooded to build dams
GeothermalInternalRenewable Electricity generation, heating Medium Very low
TidesKinetic RenewableElectricity generationPotentially very high but hard to harness Tidal barrages can block sewage which needs to go out to sea
SunNuclear RenewableElectricity generationPotentially very high, but hard to harness Very little
Water waves Kinetic Renewable Electricity generationLowVery low

Comparing resources

Power stations that use fossil fuels or nuclear fuel are very reliable sources of energy. These two types of stations provide much of the UK’s electricity. They operate almost continuously. When additional power is needed, gas power stations are usually used because they will come on very quickly and start generating electricity almost immediately.

The fuel for nuclear power stations is relatively cheap, but the power stations themselves are expensive to build. It is also very expensive to dismantle, or decommission, old nuclear power stations at the end of their useful life. The highly radioactive waste needs to be stored for millions of years before the natural activity will reduce to a safe level.

Water power eg tidal and hydroelectricity are reliable and predictable because of the Moon causing the tides and rainfall filling reservoirs. These two types can also be used to supply additional demand. But many of the renewable sources are unreliable, including wind and solar energy, and cannot respond to increased demand - sunny and windy weather cannot be guaranteed.

Renewable resources have no fuel costs, but the equipment used is expensive to build.

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