a well-known expression. So knowing about where our energy comes from, the types of sources we have at our disposal -i.e. renewable versus non-renewable – is commonplace. As is of course the realisation that we need to alter our energy mix. Because of a limited stock non-renewable sources of energy, on which we rely very heavily, we need to transition to other forms of energy to ensure our future.
So naturally, there is a lot of discussion about the “dirty” forms of non-renewable energy, mainly fossil fuels such as coal, petroleum and natural gas.
But how much do we really know about them?
10 interesting facts about non-renewable energy
Carbon is the main element in fossil fuels
It is for this reason that the time period during which fossil fuels formed, about 360-300 million years ago, is called the Carboniferous Period. Fossil fuels were all formed in a similar way hundreds of years ago – they actually predate even the dinosaurs.
Fossil fuels were created when the Earth had a very different landscape, dominated by wide shallow seas and swampy forests. Different plants, algae and plankton grew in these wetlands and when they died they drifted to the bottom of the sea or lake. Over time, these dead plants were crushed under the seabed, rocks and other sediment which piled on top of them, creating high heat and pressure. It is in this environment that these animal and plant remains eventually turned into fossil fuels .
To put this in perspective, it would take the natural process of decomposition of materials 422 years to replace what we currently consume in a year in fossil fuels .
The quality of coal is given by the level of carbonisation
Coal, the black or brownish rock we burn coal to create energy, is ranked according to how much “carbonisation” it has gone through. Carbonization is the process that organisms undergo to become coal.
Peat is the lowest rank of coal whereas anthracite is the highest rank of coal, made up of 95% carbon [1,2].
Natural gas is a form of methane
It gets trapped in pockets where plant decomposition has occurred.
Given that livestock also create methane, new experiments are working to discover how to harvest methane from the waste products of animals such as cows .
Fossil fuels cause the biggest environmental damage!
The extraction and use of fossil fuels is responsible for the majority of environmental challenges we are facing today: from climate change and global warming to acid rain, air and water pollution.
For example, in the US alone, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the burning of fossil fuels was responsible for 79% of US greenhouse gas emissions in 2010 .
Whereas multiple studies had identified the numerous chemicals often used in large volumes to extract fossil fuels. Another study identified 632 chemicals contained in fracking products used in shale gas extraction .
Burning unlocks the energy locked in fossil fuels
Fossil fuels are made up of hydrocarbons which store energy in the form of atomic bonds. To release energy, you just need to burn them. The heat that is used to burn fossil fuels cause molecules of carbon and hydrogen to react and produce large amounts of energy.
The chemicals present in the fossil fuel react only when they come in contact with other heat sources. Different types of fossil fuels vary in the quantity of hydrocarbons that they contain and this is the reason that they differ in their burning rates .
Fossil fuel frenzy started after World War II
It is during the last 80-100 years that our consumption of fossil fuels has grown unbelievably to the detriment of our environment and leading to the rapid depletion of those non-renewable resources.
Many consider that the turning point in history that led to our current fossil fuel frenzy was World War II, the first war to be fought using aircraft and tanks – the age of the modern vehicle followed, and then the electronics revolution .
Oil is the world’s most versatile substance
Just under 50% of each barrel of crude oil ends up as petrol once refined with the bulk of the remainder used as diesel, heating oil, jet fuels, liquefied petroleum gas and heavy fuel oils.
While most of us think of fuel when we think of oil, it is one of the world’s most versatile substances and can be refined into numerous different compounds, each capable of being manufactured into many others. Without oil most of modern materials, such as conventional plastics, or household goods that we take for granted would not exist .
No one knows how much is left
While it is undisputable that fossil fuels are finite resources that are being rapidly depleted, there is no wide scientific consensus on when they will actually run out.
It is estimated that given current consumption levels, our known oil reserves will run out around the middle of the century while our known coal reserves may run out towards the end of the century .
The fossil fuel industry has a very high net worth
There are 1,469 oil and gas firms listed on stock exchanges worth a combined $4.65 trillion.
To put this in perspective, major oil company ExxonMobil is the second largest company in the world after Apple .
Fossil fuel subsidies exceed the budget allocated to global healthcare
Despite its high value, the fossil industry continues to benefit from a lot of public subsidies.
Fossil fuel companies are benefiting from global subsidies which are equivalent to $10m a minute every day, according to a new estimate by the International Monetary Fund .
What is more this amount far exceeds the total budget that together all governments allocate to healthcare. This is why those active in environmental causes or wider sustainability concerns have consistently called for an eradication of subsidies to fossil fuel industries.