Non-renewable fossil fuels (crude oil, natural gas, coal, oil shales and tar sands) currently supply Australia with more than 95 percent of our electrical energy needs. Non-renewable energy is energy produced by burning fossil fuels such as coal. They are non-renewable because there are finite resources of fossil fuels on the planet. If they are continually used, one day they will run out.
The Source of Fossil Fuels
Just as plants do today, those living millions of years ago converted the sun's light energy into food (chemical) energy through the process of photosynthesis. That 'solar' energy was and is transferred down the food chain in animals. This energy provides living things with the energy to grow and live. When living organisms die the energy contained within them as chemical energy is trapped.
It is estimated that the total amount of energy gained from fossil fuels since the start of civilization is equivalent to the same amount of energy we receive every 30 days from the sun.
Fossil fuels are formed by the burying, and subsequent pressure and heating, of dead plant and animal matter or biomass (organic matter), over millions of years. This is how coal, oil and natural gas are formed. The trapped energy can be released and utilized when the fuels are burnt.
The Advantages of Fossil Fuels
There are a few major advantages with non-renewable energy. Fossil fuels, such as coal, oil and gas are abundant in Australia so this means they are a relatively cheap fuel and readily available. Australia has enough fossil fuel resources to last for hundreds of years. Also very large amounts of electricity can be generated from fossil fuels.
An Example of a Typical Coal-Fired PowerStation
A typical coal-fired power station generates electricity by burning coal in a boiler that heats up water, which is converted into superheated steam. This steam drives a steam turbine that in turn drives a generator that produces electricity.
A single coal-fired power station unit can power many thousands of houses as well as large industry.
The Disadvantages of Fossil Fuels
Fossil fuels are non-renewable and will eventually run out because we are using them much faster than they can be restored within the earth. Burning fossil fuels produces photochemical pollution from nitrous oxides, and acid rain from sulphur dioxide. Burning fuels also produce greenhouse gases including vast amounts of carbon dioxide that may be causing the phenomenon of global warming that the planet is currently experiencing.