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21.2: Renewable vs. Nonrenewable Resources

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    What is the difference between these two stands of trees?

    Trees are renewable resources. Trees can be planted, grown up, and harvested for timber. Forests are a different thing, however. A forest is a mature ecosystem. It has trees of different sizes and ages, many other plants, and lots of animals. A forest is a renewable resource, but it takes much more time to grow a forest than to grow a stand of trees.

    Renewable Resources

    Renewable resources can be renewed as they are used. An example is timber, which comes from trees. New trees can be planted to replace those that are cut down. Sunlight is a renewable resource. It seems we will never run out of that! What are some other renewable resources?

    Just because a resource is renewable doesn’t mean we should use it carelessly. If we aren’t careful, we can pollute resources. Then they may no longer be fit for use. Water is one example. If we pollute a water source, it may not be usable for drinking, bathing, or any other type of use. We can also overuse resources that should be renewable. In this case, the resources may not be able to recover. For example, fish are renewable resources. That’s because they can reproduce and make more fish. But water pollution and overfishing can cause them to die out if their population becomes too low. Another example is pictured below (Figure below).

    People hiking in a forest, and a forest destroyed by human acid rain

    Forests should be renewable resources. The forest on the left is healthy and is used for recreation. The forest on the right was killed by acid rain. Human use: hiking and bird watching. Human misuse: destruction by acid rain.

    Non-Renewable Resources

    Some resources can’t be renewed. At least, they can’t be renewed fast enough to keep up with use. Fossil fuels are an example. It takes millions of years for them to form. We are using them up much more quickly than they are forming. Elements that are used to produce nuclear power are also non-renewable resources. Uranium, for example, which is rare. Sooner or later, it will run out.

    Supplies of non-renewable resources are shrinking. This makes them harder to get. Oil is a good example. Oil reserves beneath land are running out. So oil companies have started to drill for oil far out in the ocean. This costs more money. It’s also more dangerous. Pictured below is an oil rig that exploded in 2010 (Figure below). The explosion killed 11 people. Millions of barrels of oil spilled into the water, severely damaging marine ecosystems. It took months to plug the leak.

    The Deepwater Horizon oil rig on fire

    This oil rig was pumping oil from below the ocean floor when it exploded.


    • Resources may be renewable or non-renewable.
    • Renewable resources should never run out. Non-renewable resources are available in limited supply.
    • Some non-renewable resources are in shorter supply than before. It takes more effort to get to them.


    1. What is a renewable resource?
    2. What is a non-renewable resource?
    3. How might a resource go from being renewable to non-renewable?

    Explore More

    Use this resource to answer the questions that follow.

    1. What are the down sides of fossil fuel use?
    2. What are some of the sources of renewable energy that we could use? How much of our electricity do they account for now?
    3. What is a space based solar panel farm? Why would it be useful?
    4. Where do we use solar panels now? Where could we use them in the future?
    5. What are the two good things that solar panels over water reservoirs do?
    6. Explain what is expected to happen in the tallest water-solar tower that is being talked about for the Arizona desert.
    7. What is fusion energy? What is the earliest that a fusion plant might come online?
    8. How are fossil fuels related to nuclear fusion?

    This page titled 21.2: Renewable vs. Nonrenewable Resources is shared under a CK-12 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by CK-12 Foundation via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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