Commentary: Renewable Versus Nonrenewable

Lead Author: Dr. Jeff Howe

Publish date: 07.18.2011


Can There Even be a Question?


Today, as we discuss strategic use of materials and various green behaviors, the terms renewable and nonrenewable are tossed around rather carelessly. To a certain extent, renewable has become more of a catchphrase than a term with important and critical meaning.  Perhaps a good way to compare and contrast the terms “non-renewable” and “renewable” is to look at examples of each type of material and explore what it means to be renewable.


An example of a non-renewable material is petroleum. It is a vital source of liquid transportation fuels, heating oil, liquefied refinery gas, kerosene, asphalt and road oil, lubricants, waxes, and feedstocks for a variety of industrial products including plastics. From 1950 through 2010, 163 billion barrels of petroleum were extracted in the U.S.  Because it is non-renewable, the domestic reserves of petroleum available (known and unknown) to this and future generations are 163 billion barrels less than in 1950.  Consumption of that petroleum released over 75 billion tons of carbon dioxide, and carbon dioxide equivalent emissions to the atmosphere.


An example of a renewable material is wood.  It is an important construction material in the United States, and wood is also used in making furniture, paper and paperboard, energy, electricity, and some industrial chemicals. Biomass also is the largest current source of renewable energy in North America, accounting for 4% of total energy and 50% of renewable energy[1] .  In the sixty-years ending in 2010, over 847 billion cubic feet of timber were harvested from U.S. forests; a volume approximately equivalent to that covering a football field and piled over 10,000 miles high! This wood was used in building some 90 million homes and in producing countless other products. And what was the impact on domestic forests? Because it is renewable, the volume of wood within domestic forests increased by more than 50 percent during those 60 years. America also maintained a stable forest land area during this time period. Accompanying the massive use of wood was an increase in the volume of carbon stored within U.S. forests, long-term storage of billions of tons of carbon within residential structures and other buildings, and avoidance of even greater quantities of carbon through use of wood rather than other more energy and fossil-energy intensive products.  These are the types of benefits that result from choosing renewable materials such as wood.


It might be argued that using petroleum as our example is not entirely fair, as there are some nonrenewable materials that are recyclable, thereby slowing the rate of their depletion.  Yet renewables such as wood are also recyclable and reusable as well,


No matter how you look at it, with non-renewable materials we have a finite and constantly decreasing volume of materials available, whereas with renewables it is possible to maintain a constant volume and even increase that volume with care and planning.


Another way to look at this is that, using nonrenewable materials is the same as spending the savings in your bank account, whereas using renewable materials is similar to living off the interest.  Now imagine 6 billion people drawing from your savings account!


Renewable versus nonrenewable is not a question and it is not Shakespeare.  It is a critically important issue and the only answer is renewable – period.


Dr. Jeff Howe

July 2011

[1]    U.S. Energy Information Administration. 2010. Annual Energy Review, 2009 Table 1.3 US Energy Consumption by Energy Source, 2009.