increasing global importance. We are so dependent on energy that continuous access to it is a prerequisite for the functioning of our economy and society. The supply of energy, heavily informed by geography and the natural resource wealth of countries, helps determine at least partly relations with other countries. For example, who can forget the natural gas crises that spanned between 2009-2014, which culminated when Russia effectively stopped supplying natural gas to the Ukraine, which in turn meant that a lot of European countries no longer had access to natural gas¹.
The availability of affordable energy is a key issue of modern politics. In this context, one thing that is certainly worth highlighting is the fact that these energy concerns come into play almost exclusively when we are talking about non-renewable forms of energy. While a lot of countries may not have coal, oil, natural gas or uranium deposits, they definitely can benefit from wind, solar, geothermal or hydro power or a combination of thereof.
But the use of non-renewable energy affects our daily life in ways beyond relations with other countries – it has impacts on our health and environment but it also has implications for the long-term sustainability of our economies. So, it is worth looking into what are the four main types of non-renewable energy. This might help shed some light as to why we are still using primarily non-renewable resources today despite the proven potential of other technologies.
Coal is a black or brownish rock which if burnt, creates energy. It is ranked depending on how much “carbonization” it has gone through: peat is the lowest rank of coal as it has gone through the least amount of carbonization whereas anthracite is the highest rank of coal.
The history of coal mining goes back thousands of years, back to ancient China and Rome. However, it became crucially important during the Industrial Revolution in the 19th and 20th centuries, when it was primarily used to power steam engines, heat buildings and generate electricity. In many ways, the use of coal as a source of power was what enabled the Industrial Revolution.
Despite the fact that coal has been used for so long, it continues to be relatively abundant and cheap to convert to energy. However, coal extraction and its conversion to energy are both environmentally hazardous processes which carry with them a number of health concerns. Coal mining, especially surface mining, can be particularly destructive of landscapes and pollute local resources such as water and soil. What is more, air pollution from coal-fired power plants includes sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter and heavy metals. These emissions create a number of dangerous environmental problems such as smog and acid rain as well as numerous respiratory, cardiovascular, and cerebrovascular effects⁴. In addition, coal is also an emitter of CO2 which contributes to climate change.
While some countries such as the UK have set a date of phasing out coal-fired plants, coal remains a key source of energy around the world. For example, in the US 39% of the country’s electricity was produced with coal⁵. To put this in perspective, your average coal train is 2.4 kilometres long and yet it carries barely a day’s fuel for a large power plant².
Another form of non-renewable energy is oil, a very versatile liquid fossil fuel that can be used for energy generation as well as a wide range of other applications. It is usually stored deep beneath the earth’s surface, so drilling is needed to get access to it. Once the so-called drill rigs are set up, either onshore or offshore, oil can be extracted 24/7 for several decades. Once the oil has been drilled, it must be refined primarily to separate it from several chemicals that it contains.
About half of the world’s petroleum is converted into gasoline used to fuel our cars. The rest can be processed and used in liquid products such as nail polish and rubbing alcohol, or solid products such as water pipes, shoes, crayons, roofing, vitamin capsules, and thousands of other items. Combined with other chemicals oil provides the basis of both rigid and flexible plastic as well as a number of solvents².
While its versatility is impressive, there are environmental risks that come with extracting oil and using it. One very important consideration is the risk of spills as oil can destroy local habitats and animals. Some of the most renowned environmental disasters are linked to oil spills – for example, the Exxon Valdez and BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Oil’s environmental and health impacts are similar to those of coal, particularly when it comes to air pollution and climate change.
#3 Natural Gas
Natural gas is the third fossil fuel that can be found beneath our planet’s surface. While coal is a rock and oil is a liquid, natural gas is – as the name suggests – a gas. Unlike oil and coal despots, natural gas is not found in big open pockets but rather trapped in rock formations². The process of extracting it therefore, hydraulic fracturing, is slightly more complicated in that it involves high-pressure water being piped underground to break the rock and release the gas. If the rock is too hard, chemicals are used to dissolve the rocks.
Compared to coal and oil, natural gas emits a lot less CO2 which means it can be better for our environment. The other substance released is water vapour – so nowhere near the hazardous air pollutants of oil and coal. At the same time, natural gas is made up of primarily methane, another greenhouse gas, which is far more potent than CO2. This means that using and transporting natural gas could release methane into the atmosphere. However, modern technologies can limit this risk.
While natural gas is considered the cleanest of fossil fuels but its extraction can be problematic. Hydraulic fracturing can create mini-earthquakes and the use of chemicals can pollute nearby soil and water resources. Mini-earthquakes can be particularly damaging to local communities particularly in terms of the value of their houses and property. But in any case, if the man-made process used to extract a fossil fuel results in mini-earthquakes as has for instance happened in the Netherlands⁶, it makes you think: does extracting natural gas really make sense?
#4 Nuclear power
Nuclear power is not a fossil fuel but it is a non-renewable form of energy. This is because while nuclear power itself relies on the bonds that can be found in atoms of uranium and therefore can be considered renewable, the material used in nuclear power plants – uranium – is not². Nuclear energy is released when the nucleus of an atom splits; to achieve this a rather rare type of uranium, U-235, is needed.
The great advantage of nuclear energy is that nuclear power plants do not pollute the air or emit greenhouse gases. Having said, not only are U-235 reserves limited but extracting uranium as well as disposing of the waste generated from the production of nuclear energy can be damaging to the environment as the material is radioactive; this means that accidents can be particularly costly to both the environment and humans.