10 Energy Resources

Jean Brainard

Non-Renewable Energy

Sufficient, reliable sources of energy are a necessity for industrialized nations. Energy is used for heating, cooking, transportation and manufacturing. Energy can be generally classified as non-renewable and renewable. Over 85% of the energy used in the world is from non-renewable supplies. Most developed nations are dependent on non-renewable energy sources such as fossil fuels (coal and oil) and nuclear power. These sources are called non-renewable because they cannot be renewed or regenerated quickly enough to keep pace with their use. Some sources of energy are renewable or potentially renewable. Examples of renewable energy sources are: solar, geothermal, hydroelectric, biomass, and wind. Renewable energy sources are more commonly by used in developing nations.

A non-renewable resource is not regenerated or restored on a time scale comparative to its consumption. Non-renewable resources exist in fixed amounts (at least relative to our time frame), and can be used up. The classic examples are fossil fuels such as petroleum, coal, and natural gas. Fossil fuels have formed from remains of plants (for coal) and phyto- and zoo-plankton (for oil) over periods from 50 to 350 million years. Ecologist Jeff Dukes estimates that 20 metric tons of phytoplankton produce 1 liter of gasoline! We have been consuming fossil fuels for less than 200 years, yet even the most optimistic estimates suggest that remaining reserves can supply our needs for

Coal: 252 years.
Gas: 72 years
Oil: 45 years

Nuclear power is considered a non-renewable resource because uranium fuel supplies are finite. Some estimates suggest that known economically feasible supplies could last 70 years at current rates of use – although known, and probably unknown reserves are much larger, and new technologies could make some reserves more useful.

Global energy use includes mostly non-renewable (oil, coal, gas, and nuclear) but increasing amounts of renewable (biomass, hydro, solar, wind, geothermal, biofuels, and solar photovoltaic) resources.

Today 80% of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels.Fossil fuels are formed hundreds of millions of years ago from decomposition of the bodies of living things became buried. See a description of this process this site: http://www.fossil.energy.gov/education/energylessons/coal/gen_howformed.html

The reasons why fossil fuels are so widely used today:

  1. Fossil fuel is easy to store and transport
  2. Society’s energy infrastructure and technology for transportation is geared for using fossil fuel energy
  3. Fossil fuels like coal and oil are easy to store and transport, while natural gas is used in countries that have natural gas pipeline networks.

Society’s dependence on fossil fuel is problematic because:

  1. Fossil fuel supply are finite and crude oil supplies are running low
  2. Most crude oil producing countries are developing and politically unstable, so that crude oil can suddenly be in short supply due to politics
    • E.g. OPEC’s (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) 1973-74 oil embargo against the US for supporting Israel in the Arab-Israel war caused widespread panic, skyrocketing prices, and spurred inflation.
  3. Burning fossil fuels creates air pollution and causes acid rain
  4. Burning fossil fuels released carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and contributes to global climate change.


Coal is the most abundant fossil fuel in the world with an estimated reserve of one trillion metric tons. Most of the world’s coal reserves exist in Eastern Europe and Asia, but the United States also has considerable reserves. Coal formed slowly over millions of years from the buried remains of ancient swamp plants. During the formation of coal, carbonaceous matter was first compressed into a spongy material called “peat,” which is about 90% water. As the peat became more deeply buried, the increased pressure and temperature turned it into coal.

Different types of coal resulted from differences in the pressure and temperature that prevailed during formation. The softest coal (about 50% carbon), which also has the lowest energy output, is called lignite. Lignite has the highest water content (about 50%) and relatively low amounts of smog-causing sulfur.

With increasing temperature and pressure, lignite is transformed into bituminous coal (about 85% carbon and 3% water). Anthracite (almost 100% carbon) is the hardest coal and also produces the greatest energy when burned. Less than 1% of the coal found in the United States is anthracite. Most of the coal found in the United States is bituminous. Unfortunately, bituminous coal has the highest sulfur content of all the coal types. When the coal is burned, the pollutant sulfur dioxide is released into the atmosphere.

Coal mining creates several environmental problems. Coal is most cheaply mined from near-surface deposits using strip mining techniques.Strip-mining causes considerable environmental damage in the forms of erosion and habitat destruction. Sub-surface mining of coal is less damaging to the surface environment, but is much more hazardous for the miners due to tunnel collapses and gas explosions. Extraction of coal from underground mines is dangerous to miners and environmentally devastating to natural habitats for surface mining (i.e. coal scraped off the surface of the ground).

Currently, the world is consuming coal at a rate of about 5 billion metric tons per year. The main use of coal is for power generation, because it is a relatively inexpensive way to produce power.

Coal is used to produce over 50% of the electricity in the United States. In addition to electricity production, coal is sometimes used for heating and cooking in less developed countries and in rural areas of developed countries. If consumption continues at the same rate, the current reserves will last for more than 200 years. The burning of coal results in significant atmospheric pollution. The sulfur contained in coal forms sulfur dioxide when burned. Harmful nitrogen oxides, heavy metals, and carbon dioxide are also released into the air during coal burning. The harmful emissions can be reduced by installing scrubbers and electrostatic precipitators in the smokestacks of power plants. The toxic ash remaining after coal burning is also an environmental concern and is usually disposed into landfills.

Coal is the world’s most abundant fossil fuel. Table 4 – Top 10 poducers of coal in 2008

Rank Country Coal Produced in Metric Tonnes
1 China 2761
2 USA 1007
3 India 490
4 Australia 325
5 Russia 247
6 Indonesia 246
7 South Africa 236
8 Kazakhstan 104
9 Poland 84
10 Colombia 79

Table data from: http://www.worldcoal.org/resources/coal-statistics/ (you do not need to go to this site)Table 5 – Top 11 consumers of coal in 2007

Rank Country Coal Produced in Metric Tonnes
1 South Africa 94%
2 Poland 93%
3 PR China 81%
4 Australia 76%
5 Israel 71%
6 Kazakhstan 70%
7 India 68%
8 Czech Rep 62%
9 Morocco 57%
10 Greece 55%
11 USA 49%

Table data from: http://www.worldcoal.org/resources/coal-statistics/ (you do not need to go to this site)


Crude oil or liquid petroleum, is a fossil fuel that is refined into many different energy products (e.g., gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel, heating oil). Oil forms underground in rock such as shale, which is rich in organic materials. After the oil forms, it migrates upward into porous reservoir rock such as sandstone or limestone, where it can become trapped by an overlying impermeable cap rock. Wells are drilled into these oil reservoirs to remove the gas and oil. Over 70 percent of oil fields are found near tectonic plate boundaries, because the conditions there are conducive to oil formation.

Oil recovery can involve more than one stage. The primary stage involves pumping oil from reservoirs under the normal reservoir pressure. About 25 percent of the oil in a reservoir can be removed during this stage. The secondary recovery stage involves injecting hot water into the reservoir around the well. This water forces the remaining oil toward the area of the well from which it can be recovered.

Sometimes a tertiary method of recovery is used in order to remove as much oil as possible. This involves pumping steam, carbon dioxide gas or nitrogen gas into the reservoir to force the remaining oil toward the well. Tertiary recovery is very expensive and can cost up to half of the value of oil removed. Carbon dioxide used in this method remains sequestered in the deep reservoir, thus mitigating its potential greenhouse effect on the atmosphere. The refining process required to convert crude oil into useable hydrocarbon compounds involves boiling the crude and separating the gases in a process known as fractional distillation. Besides its use as a source of energy, oil also provides base material for plastics, provides asphalt for roads and is a source of industrial chemicals.

Over 50 percent of the world’s oil is found in the Middle East; sizeable additional reserves occur in North America. Most known oil reserves are already being exploited, and oil is being used at a rate that exceeds the rate of discovery of new sources.

If the consumption rate continues to increase and no significant new sources are found, oil supplies may be exhausted in another 30 years or so.

Despite its limited supply, oil is a relatively inexpensive fuel source. It is a preferred fuel source over coal. An equivalent amount of oil produces more kilowatts of energy than coal. It also burns cleaner, producing about 50 percent less sulfur dioxide.

Oil, however, does cause environmental problems. The burning of oil releases atmospheric pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. These gases are smog-precursors that pollute the air and greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Another environmental issue associated with the use of oil is the impact of oil drilling. Substantial oil reserves lie under the ocean. Oil spill accidents involving drilling platforms kill marine organisms and birds.

Some reserves such as those in northern Alaska occur in wilderness areas. The building of roads, structures and pipelines to support oil recovery operations can severely impact the wildlife in those natural areas.

 See this animation about how oil recovery works: click here.

Crude oil is used to produce gasoline and many other petroleum products. See the list in this site http://www.ranken-energy.com/Products%20from%20Petroleum.htmTable 2 – Top 10 producers of crude oil in 2008 (thousands of barrels per day)

Rank Country Production
1 Saudi Arabia 10,782
2 Russia 9,790
3 United States 8,514
4 Iran 4,174
5 China 3,973
6 Canada 3,350
7 Mexico 3,186
8 United Arab Emirates 3,046
9 Kuwait 2,741
10 Venezuela 2,643

Table data from: http://tonto.eia.doe.gov/country/index.cfm (you do not need to go to this site)Table 3 – Top 10 consumers of crude oil in 2008 (thousands of barrels per day)

Rank Country Consumption
1 United States 19,498
2 China 7,831
3 Japan 4,785
4 India 2,962
5 Russia 2,916
6 Germany 2,569
7 Brazil 2,485
8 Saudi Arabia 2,376
9 Canada 2,261
10 Korea, South 2,175

Table data from: http://tonto.eia.doe.gov/country/index.cfm (you do not need to go to this site)


Natural gas consists of primarily methane and it can be formed in 2 ways:

  • Biogenic gas – created at shallow depths by bacterial anaerobic decomposition of organic matter or “Swamp gas”
  • Thermogenic gas or fossil natural gas – results from compression and heat deep underground, found above coal or crude oil
    • This means that countries with large reserve of coal or crude oil also have large reserves of natural gas. Natural gas is harder to transport than crude oil or coal. Many developing countries that do not have natural gas networks pipeline or infrastructure to liquefy the gas waste this energy resource.The gas is often burned off at the crude oil or coal extraction site (called flaring) rather than used for supplying energy needs.
    • Picture from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/doneastwest/2368728311/

Natural gas production is often a by-product of oil recovery, as the two commonly share underground reservoirs. Natural gas is a mixture of gases, the most common being methane (CH4). It also contains some ethane (C2H5),propane (C3H8), and butane (C4H10). Natural gas is usually not contaminated with sulfur and is therefore the cleanest burning fossil fuel. After recovery, propane and butane are removed from the natural gas and made into liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). LPG is shipped in special pressurized tanks as a fuel source for areas not directly served by natural gas pipelines (e.g., rural communities). The remaining natural gas is further refined to remove impurities and water vapor, and then transported in pressurized pipelines. The United States has over 300,000 miles of natural gas pipelines. Natural gas is highly flammable and is odorless. The characteristic smell associated with natural gas is actually that of minute quantities of a smelly sulfur compound (ethyl mercaptan) which is added during refining to warn consumers of gas leaks.

The use of natural gas is growing rapidly. Besides being a clean burning fuel source, natural gas is easy and inexpensive to transport once pipelines are in place. In developed countries, natural gas is used primarily for heating, cooking, and powering vehicles. It is also used in a process for making ammonia fertilizer. The current estimate of natural gas reserves is about 100 million metric tons. At current usage levels, this supply will last an estimated 100 years. Most of the world’s natural gas reserves are found in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.


Oil shale and tar sands are the least utilized fossil fuel sources. Oil shaleis sedimentary rock with very fine pores that contain kerogen, a carbon-based, waxy substance. If shale is heated to 490º C, the kerogen vaporizes and can then be condensed as shale oil, a thick viscous liquid. This shale oil is generally further refined into usable oil products. Production of shale oil requires large amounts of energy for mining and processing the shale. Indeed about a half barrel of oil is required to extract every barrel of shale oil. Oil shale is plentiful, with estimated reserves totaling 3 trillion barrels of recoverable shale oil. These reserves alone could satisfy the world’s oil needs for about 100 years. Environmental problems associated with oil shale recovery include: large amounts of water needed for processing, disposal of toxic waste water, and disruption of large areas of surface lands.

Tar sand is a type of sedimentary rock that is impregnated with a very thick crude oil. This thick crude does not flow easily and thus normal oil recovery methods cannot be used to mine it. If tar sands are near the surface, they can be mined directly. In order to extract the oil from deep-seated tar sands, however, steam must be injected into the reservoir to make the oil flow better and push it toward the recovery well. The energy cost for producing a barrel of tar sand is similar to that for oil shale. The largest tar-sand deposit in the world is in Canada and contains enough material (about 500 billion barrels) to supply the world with oil for about 15 years. However, because of environmental concerns and high production costs these tar sand fields are not being fully utilized.


In most electric power plants, water is heated and converted into steam, which drives a turbine-generator to produce electricity. Fossil-fueled power plants produce heat by burning coal, oil, or natural gas. In a nuclear power plant, the fission of uranium atoms in the reactor provides the heat to produce steam for generating electricity.

Several commercial reactor designs are currently in use in the United States. The most widely used design consists of a heavy steel pressure vessel surrounding a reactor core. The reactor core contains the uranium fuel, which is formed into cylindrical ceramic pellets and sealed in long metal tubes called fuel rods. Thousands of fuel rods form the reactor core. Heat is produced in a nuclear reactor when neutrons strike uranium atoms, causing them to split in a continuous chain reaction. Control rods, which are made of a material such as boron that absorbs neutrons, are placed among the fuel assemblies.

When the neutron-absorbing control rods are pulled out of the core, more neutrons become available for fission and the chain reaction speeds up, producing more heat. When they are inserted into the core, fewer neutrons are available for fission, and the chain reaction slows or stops, reducing the heat generated. Heat is removed from the reactor core area by water flowing through it in a closed pressurized loop. The heat is transferred to a second water loop through a heat exchanger. The water also serves to slow down, or “moderate” the neutrons which is necessary for sustaining the fission reactions. The second loop is kept at a lower pressure, allowing the water to boil and create steam, which is used to power the turbine-generator and produce electricity.

Originally, nuclear energy was expected to be a clean and cheap source of energy. Nuclear fission does not produce atmospheric pollution or greenhouse gases and it proponents expected that nuclear energy would be cheaper and last longer than fossil fuels.

Unfortunately, because of construction cost overruns, poor management, and numerous regulations, nuclear power ended up being much more expensive than predicted. The nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania and the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant in the Ukraine raised concerns about the safety of nuclear power. Furthermore, the problem of safely disposing spent nuclear fuel remains unresolved. The United States has not built a new nuclear facility in over twenty years, but with continued energy crises across the country that situation may change.

 See this animation about how nuclear power works: Click here.

Renewable Energy

Renewable energy sources are often considered alternative sources because, in general, most industrialized countries do not rely on them as their main energy source. Instead, they tend to rely on non-renewable sources such as fossil fuels or nuclear power. Because the energy crisis in the United States during the 1970s, dwindling supplies of fossil fuels and hazards associated with nuclear power, usage of renewable energy sources such as solar energy, hydroelectric, wind, biomass, and geothermal has grown.

Renewable energy comes from the sun (considered an “unlimited” supply) or other sources that can theoretically be renewed at least as quickly as they are consumed. If used at a sustainable rate, these sources will be available for consumption for thousands of years or longer. Unfortunately, some potentially renewable energy sources, such as biomass and geothermal, are actually being depleted in some areas because the usage rate exceeds the renewal rate.

A resource replenished by natural processes at a rate roughly equal to the rate at which humans consume it is a renewable resource. Sunlight and wind, for example, are in no danger of being used in excess of their longterm availability. Hydropower is renewed by the Earth’s hydrologic cycle. Water has also been considered renewable, but overpumping of groundwater is depleting aquifers, and pollution threatens the use of many water resources, showing that the consequences of resource use are not always simple depletion. Soils are often considered renewable, but erosion and depletion of minerals proves otherwise. Living things (forests and fish, for example) are considered renewable because they can reproduce to replace individuals lost to human consumption. This is true only up to a point, however; overexploitation can lead to extinction, and overharvesting can remove nutrients so that soil fertility does not allow forest renewal. Energy resources derived from living things, such as ethanol, plant oils, and methane, are considered renewable, although their costs to the environment are not always adequately considered. Renewable materials would include sustainably harvested wood, cork, and bamboo as well as sustainably harvested crops. Metals and other minerals are sometimes considered renewable because they are not destroyed when they are used, and can be recycled.

Although most of our energy needs today come from fossil fuels but we are now increasingly aware that we need to find alternative energy sources. The benefits of using renewable energy sources are:

  1. Most energy will never run out
  2. Countries are no longer so dependent on oil producing nationals for their energy needs
  3. Most renewable energy sources produce little or no air pollution and little
  4. Most renewable energy sources produce little or no carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and therefore is a solution to global climate change

The reasons why renewable energy sources are NOT more widely used:

  1. Most of our technology and infrastructure today is geared toward using fossil fuel energy
  2. Switching to renewable energy requires expensive investments in infrastructure
  3. We have limited ways to transport electricity generated by renewable energy sources that are not near electric grids.

The various ways we produce electricity from renewable energy sources is based on the principle that something has to turn turbines to generate electricity. The turning force spins giant magnets suspended within coils of metal wire inside the turbine which creates electricity inside the metal coils.


Solar energy is the ultimate energy source driving the earth. Though only one billionth of the energy that leaves the sun actually reaches the earth’s surface, this is more than enough to meet the world’s energy requirements. In fact, all other sources of energy, renewable and non-renewable, are actually stored forms of solar energy. The process of directly converting solar energy to heat or electricity is considered a renewable energy source. Solar energy represents an essentially unlimited supply of energy as the sun will long outlast human civilization on earth. The difficulties lie in harnessing the energy. Solar energy has been used for centuries to heat homes and water, and modern technology (photovoltaic cells)has provided a way to produce electricity from sunlight.

There are two basic forms of radiant solar energy use: passive and active. Passive solar energy systems are static, and do not require the input of energy in the form of moving parts or pumping fluids to utilize the sun’s energy.

Buildings can be designed to capture and collect the sun’s energy directly. Materials are selected for their special characteristics: glass allows the sun to enter the building to provide light and heat; water and stone materials have high heat capacities. They can absorb large amounts of solar energy during the day, which can then be used during the night. A southern exposure greenhouse with glass windows and a concrete floor is an example of a passive solar heating system. Active solar energy systems require the input of some energy to drive mechanical devices (e.g., solar panels), which collect the energy and pump fluids used to store and distribute the energy. Solar panels are generally mounted on a south or west-facing roof. A solar panel usually consists of a glass-faced, sealed, insulated box with a black matte interior finish. Inside are coils full of a heat-collecting liquid medium (usually water, sometimes augmented by antifreeze).

The sun heats the water in the coils, which is pumped to coils in a heat transfer tank containing water. The water in the tank is heated and then either stored or pumped through the building to heat rooms or supply hot water to taps in the building.

  • Has a long history of use by preindustrial age human society, e.g. using the sun to dry food or clothes There are 2 ways to harness solar energy
    • Harness the sun’s heat (either directly or by concentrating the heat)
    • Convert the sun’s light to electricity with photovoltaic cells
  • Read about the different ways to harness solar energy from this site: http://www.getsolar.com/learn_types-of-solar-power.php Biomass and Biofuels

Photovoltaic cells generate electricity from sunlight. Hundreds of cells are linked together to provide the required flow of current. The electricity can be used directly or stored in storage batteries. Because photovoltaic cells have no moving parts, they are clean, quiet, and durable. Early photovoltaic cells were extremely expensive, making the cost of solar electric panels prohibitive. The recent development of inexpensive semiconductor materials has helped greatly lower the cost to the point where solar electric panels can compete much better cost-wise with traditionally-produced electricity.

Though solar energy itself is free, large costs can be associated with the equipment. The building costs for a house heated by passive solar energy may initially be more expensive. The glass, stone materials, and excellent insulation necessary for the system to work properly tend to be more costly than conventional building materials. A long-term comparison of utility bills, though, generally reveals noticeable savings. The solar panels used in active solar energy can be expensive to purchase, install and maintain. Leaks can occur in the extensive network of pipes required, thereby causing additional expense. The biggest drawback of any solar energy system is that it requires a consistent supply of sunlight to work. Most parts of the world have less than ideal conditions for a solar-only home because of their latitude or climate. Therefore, it is usually necessary for solar houses to have conventional backup systems (e.g. a gas furnace or hot-water heater). This double-system requirement further adds to its cost.

 See these two animations on solar energy use:

  1. Solar Heating System
  2. Photovoltaic Cells


Wind is the result of the sun’s uneven heating of the atmosphere. Warm air expands and rises, and cool air contracts and sinks. This movement of the air is called wind. Wind has been used as an energy source for millennia. It has been used to pump water, to power ships, and to mill grains. Areas with constant and strong winds can be used by wind turbines to generate electricity. In the United States, the state of California has about 20,000 wind turbines, and produces the most wind-generated electricity. Wind energy does not produce air pollution, can be virtually limitless, and is relatively inexpensive to produce. There is an initial cost of manufacturing the wind turbine and the costs associated with upkeep and repairs, but the wind itself is free.

The major drawbacks of wind-powered generators are they require lots of open land and a fairly constant wind supply. Less than 15% of the United States is suitable for generating wind energy. Windmills are also noisy, and some people consider them aesthetically unappealing and label them as visual pollution. Migrating birds and insects can become entangled and killed by the turning blades. However, the land used for windmill farms can be simultaneously used for other purposes such as ranching, farming and recreation.

  • Has a long history of use by preindustrial age human society, e.g. windmills used to grind grain in to flour
  • The fastest growing source of renewable energy
  • Read about wind energy from this site: http://windeis.anl.gov/guide/basics/index.cfm

Wind power is considered a renewable resource because the rate of supply far exceeds the rate of use (


Hydroelectric power is generated by using the energy of flowing water to power generating turbines for producing electricity. Most hydroelectric power is generated by dams across large-flow rivers. A dam built across river creates a reservoir behind it. The height of the water behind the dam is greater than that below the dam, representing stored potential energy. When water flows down through the penstock of the dam, driving the turbines, some of this potential energy is converted into electricity. Hydroelectric power, like other alternative sources, is clean and relatively cheap over the long term even with initial construction costs and upkeep. But because the river’s normal flow rate is reduced by the dam, sediments normally carried downstream by the water are instead deposited in the reservoir. Eventually, the sediment can clog the penstocks and render the dam useless for power generation.

Large-scale dams can have a significant impact on the regional environment. When the river is initially dammed, farmlands are sometimes flooded and entire populations of people and wildlife are displaced by the rising waters behind the dam. In some cases, the reservoir can flood hundreds or thousands of square kilometers. The decreased flow downstream from the dam can also negatively impact human and wildlife populations living downstream. In addition, the dam can act as a barrier to fish that must travel upstream to spawn. Aquatic organisms are frequently caught and killed in the penstock and the out-take pipes. Because of the large surface area of the reservoir, the local climate can change due to the large amount of evaporation occurring.

  • Has a long history of use by preindustrial age human society, e.g. watermills used to grind grain in to flour
  • Today hydropower mostly involves building dams across major rivers and harnessing the power of the water as it flows across the dam to turn turbines that generate electricity
  • The world has maximized the use of hydropower because most of the world’s major rivers have dams on them
  • Building of dams causes major habitat destruction due to the large area behind the dams that become flooded
  • This energy is renewable only if the river continues to flow

 See this animation on how dams generate electricity. Click here.


Biomass energy is the oldest energy source used by humans. Biomass is the organic matter that composes the tissues of plants and animals. Until the Industrial Revolution prompted a shift to fossil fuels in the mid 18th century, it was the world’s dominant fuel source. Biomass can be burned for heating and cooking, and even generating electricity. The most common source of biomass energy is from the burning of wood, but energy can also be generated by burning animal manure (dung), herbaceous plant material (non-wood), peat (partially decomposed plant and animal tissues), or converted biomass such as charcoal (wood that has been partially burned to produce a coal-like substance). Biomass can also be converted into a liquid biofuel such as ethanol or methanol. Currently, about 15 percent of the world’s energy comes from biomass.

Biomass is a potentially renewable energy source. Unfortunately, trees that are cut for firewood are frequently not replanted. In order to be used sustainably, one tree must be planted for every one cut down.

Biomass is most frequently used as a fuel source in developing nations, but with the decline of fossil fuel availability and the increase in fossil fuel prices, biomass is increasingly being used as a fuel source in developed nations. One example of biomass energy in developed nations is the burning of municipal solid waste. In the United States, several plants have been constructed to burn urban biomass waste and use the energy to generate electricity.

The use of biomass as a fuel source has serious environmental effects. When harvested trees are not replanted, soil erosion can occur. The loss of photosynthetic activity results in increased amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and can contribute to global warming. The burning of biomass also produces carbon dioxide and deprives the soil of nutrients it normally would have received from the decomposition of the organic matter. Burning releases particulate matter (such as ash) into the air which can cause respiratory health problems.

  • Biomass: organic material that makes up living organisms
    • More than 1 billion people use wood from trees as their principal energy source.
    • In developing nations, families gather fuelwood for heating, cooking, and lighting.
    • Biomass is only renewable not overharvested.
    • Co-firing combines biomass with coal to burn and generate electricity
    • Gasification: vaporized biomass at high temperature without oxygen produce a gas mix that can be used to produce electricity, methanol and diesel fuel
  • Biofuels: biomass sources are converted into fuels to power automobiles
    • Ethanol: produced as a biofuel by fermenting plant matter (e.g. carbohydrate-rich crops, crop residue, weeds)
      • Ethanol is widely added to U.S. gasoline to reduce emissions.
      • Any vehicle on the road today will run well on a 10% ethanol mix.
      • But ethanol made from corn can cause food prices to increase, therefore it is better to use waste plant materials for making ethanol
    • Flexible fuel vehicles: run on 85% ethanol
    • Biodiesel: a fuel produced from vegetable oil, used cooking grease or animal fat used in diesel engines.

 See this animation about Tree Harvesting: Click here.


Geothermal energy uses heat from the earth’s internal geologic processes in order to produce electricity or provide heating. One source of geothermal energy is steam. Groundwater percolates down though cracks in the subsurface rocks until it reaches rocks heated by underlying magma, and the heat converts the water to steam. Sometimes this steam makes its way back to the surface in the form of a geyser or hot spring. Wells can be dug to tap the steam reservoir and bring it to the surface, to drive generating turbines and produce electricity. Hot water can be circulated to heat buildings. Regions near tectonic plate boundaries have the best potential for geothermal activity.

The western portion of the United States is most conducive for geothermal energy sources, and over half of the electricity used by the city of San Francisco comes from the Geysers, a natural geothermal field in Northern California. California produces about 50 percent of the world’s electricity that comes from geothermal sources.

Entire cities in Iceland, which is located in a volcanically active region near a mid-ocean ridge, are heated by geothermal energy. The Rift Valley region of East Africa also has geothermal power plants. Geothermal energy may not always be renewable in a particular region if the steam is withdrawn at a rate faster than it can be replenished, or if the heating source cools off. The energy produced by the Geysers region of California is already in decline because the heavy use is causing the underground heat source to cool. Geothermal energy recovery can be less environmentally invasive than engaging in recovery methods for non-renewable energy sources. Although it is relatively environmentally friendly, it is not practical for all situations. Only limited geographic regions are capable of producing geothermal energy that is economically viable. Therefore, it will probably never become a major source of energy. The cost and energy requirements for tapping and transporting steam and hot water are high. Hydrogen sulfide, an toxic air pollutant that smells like rotten eggs, is also often associated with geothermal activity.

There are 2 ways to harness geothermal heat:

  1. Geothermal heat pumps: Utilize the temperature difference between above ground and below ground temperatures
    • Underground temperature stays constant year round (45-75oF)
    • Antifreeze solution circulates from the house / building to the ground
    • The pumps heat buildings in the winter by transferring heat from the ground into buildings.
    • In the summer, heat is transferred through underground pipes from the house / building into the ground.Picture of geothermal heat pump from: http://www.energysensene.com/images_EnergySenseNewEngland/GeothermalEnergy1.jpg
  2. Geothermal power stations: Harness energy for electricity productions by using hot water heated to high temperatures in the ground in places where hot magma is closer to the Earth crust (e.g. hot springs or geysers).


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Energy Resources Copyright © by Jean Brainard is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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