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What is energy? Sources of energy

Energy sources are renewable or nonrenewable

There are many different sources of energy but they are all either renewable or nonrenewable energy sources.

Renewable and nonrenewable energy sources can be used as primary energy sources to produce useful energy such as heat, or they can be used to produce secondary energy sources such as electricity and hydrogen.

Nonrenewable energy sources account for most U.S. energy consumption

In the United States and many other countries, most energy sources used for doing work are nonrenewable energy sources:

These energy sources are called nonrenewable because their supplies are limited to the amounts that we can mine or extract from the earth. Coal, natural gas, and petroleum formed over thousands of years from the buried remains of ancient sea plants and animals that lived millions of years ago, which is why we also call those energy sources fossil fuels.

Most of the petroleum products consumed in the United States are made from crude oil, but petroleum liquids can also be made from natural gas and coal.

Nuclear energy is produced from uranium, a nonrenewable energy source whose atoms are split (through a process called nuclear fission) to create heat and, eventually, electricity. Scientists think uranium was created billions of years ago when stars formed. Uranium is found throughout the earth’s crust, but most of it is too difficult or too expensive to mine and process into fuel for nuclear power plants.

There are five major renewable energy sources:

Renewable energy sources are naturally replenished. Day after day, the sun shines, plants grow, wind blows, and rivers flow.

Renewable energy was the main energy source for most of human history

Throughout most of human history, biomass from plants was the main energy source. Biomass was burned for warmth and light, to cook food, and to feed the animals people used for transportation and plowing. Nonrenewable energy began replacing most renewable energy in the United States in the early 1800s, and by the early-1900s, fossil fuels were the main source of energy. Biomass continued to be used for heating homes primarily in rural areas and, to a lesser extent, for supplemental heat in urban areas. In the mid-1980s, use of biomass and other forms of renewable energy began increasing largely because of incentives for their use, especially for electricity generation. Many countries are working to increase renewable energy use as a way to help reduce and avoid carbon dioxide emissions.

Learn more about historical U.S. energy use and timelines for energy sources.

The chart below shows U.S. energy sources, their major uses, and their percentage shares of total U.S. energy consumption in 2022.

U.S. primary energy consumption by source, 2022 U.S. primary energy consumption by source, 2022 biomass renewable heating, electricity, transportation 4.9% hydropower renewable electricity 2.3% wind renewable electricity 3.8% solar renewable heating, electricity 1.9% geothermal renewable heating, electricity 0.2% petroleum nonrenewable transportation, manufacturing, electricity 35.7% natural gas nonrenewable heating, manufacturing, electricity, transportation 33.3% coal nonrenewable electricity, manufacturing 9.8% nuclear (from uranium) nonrenewable electricity 8.0% Data source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Energy Review, Table 1.3 and 10.2, April 2023, preliminary data Note: Sources not included above are net electricity imports and coal coke, which accounted for less than 1% of U.S. energy consumption in 2022. The sum of individual percentages may not equal 100% because of independent rounding.

Last updated: August 16, 2023.