What are fossil fuels?

With all the recent hot topic debates around renewable energy, more and more attention is drawn to the production and uses of fossil fuels. Despite years of using and surrounding ourselves with fossil fuels it seems many of us are still unsure as to what they actually are and what they do for us. As the spotlight continues to shine on renewable energy targets and greenhouse gas emissions, it can be overwhelming trying to keep up with all the information. In this article, Canstar Blue breaks down everything you need to know about fossil fuels in Australia, including what they are, how they are used and the pros and cons to using them in everyday life.

What are fossil fuels and what are they made of?

Fossil fuels are hydrocarbon energy sources that are formed through the fossilisation of organic matter. Fossil fuels are typically made from the remains of plants and animals from millions of years ago, that have been buried and left to compound and fossilise within the earth’s crust. Since fossil fuels are sourced from organic matter, they often have a high carbon count that makes them more harmful to the environment than other energy sources.

What are fossil fuels used for?

Fossil fuels are mainly used to generate energy in Australia. These fuels, whether they be coal, natural gas or oil, are often burned in large power stations to produce energy that is then sent onto the electricity grid. In Australia, most of our electricity is produced through black and brown coal in coal-fired power stations.

How are fossil fuels different to renewable fuel sources?

Wind turbines and solar panels in a field

The main difference between fossil fuels and renewable fuel sources is the level of emissions they produce when being used. Fossil fuels with their high hydrocarbon count, tend to emit a large portion of carbon into the atmosphere when being burned. Renewable fuel sources, like solar, wind and hydro, on the other hand, emit little to no carbon through their energy generation, ultimately creating less pollution.

While both fossil fuels and renewable sources do occur naturally, renewable sources are also able to regenerate quicker and more efficiently than fossil fuel sources, which rely on years of decomposing remains and fossilisation to generate. As such, there has been a recent pull towards more renewable energy sources as they are not only more sustainable for the environment but a more readily accessible and reliable energy source. Some renewable energy incentives already implemented into the Australian energy retail market include carbon neutral energy, GreenPower and solar panel and battery installation.

Carbon Neutral Energy Plans in Australia

Here are some of the cheapest published deals from the retailers on our database that have a carbon offsets included in the cost. These are products from referral partners†. These costs are based on the Ausgrid network in Sydney but prices may vary depending on your circumstances. This comparison assumes general energy usage of 3900kWh/year for a residential customer on a single rate tariff. Please use our comparison tool for a specific comparison in your area. Our database may not cover all deals in your area. As always, check all details of any plan directly with the retailer before making a purchase decision.

Here are some of the cheapest published deals from the retailers on our database that have a carbon offsets included in the cost. These are products from referral partners†. These costs are based on the Citipower network in Melbourne but prices may vary depending on your circumstances. This comparison assumes general energy usage of 4000kWh/year for a residential customer on a single rate tariff. Please use our comparison tool for a specific comparison in your area. Our database may not cover all deals in your area. As always, check all details of any plan directly with the retailer before making a purchase decision.

Here are some of the cheapest published deals from the retailers on our database that have a carbon offsets included in the cost. These are products from referral partners†. These costs are based on the Energex network in Brisbane but prices may vary depending on your circumstances. This comparison assumes general energy usage of 4600kWh/year for a residential customer on a single rate tariff. Please use our comparison tool for a specific comparison in your area. Our database may not cover all deals in your area. As always, check all details of any plan directly with the retailer before making a purchase decision.

Here are some of the cheapest published deals from the retailers on our database that have a carbon offsets included in the cost. These are products from referral partners†. These costs are based on the SA Power network in Adelaide but prices may vary depending on your circumstances. This comparison assumes general energy usage of 4000kWh/year for a residential customer on a single rate tariff. Please use our comparison tool for a specific comparison in your area. Our database may not cover all deals in your area. As always, check all details of any plan directly with the retailer before making a purchase decision.

Types of Fossil Fuels

There are three main types of fossil fuels: Coal, oil and natural gas.

Coal

Coal on the back of a truck at coal mine

Coal is a carbon-heavy, solid fossil fuel that is extracted through a mining process. There are two main types of mining processes for coal; underground, which uses machinery to cut into deep reservoirs to extract the coal, and surface mining, which strips back layers of dirt, soil and rock to reach the coal. According to the Australian Government, coal accounts for about 75 per cent of Australia’s electricity generation, with 40 per cent of Australia’s primary energy consumption being coal.

Oil

Also known as crude oil or petroleum, oil is a liquid fossil fuel that is mostly found in underground reservoirs. Made up of hydrocarbons, oil is sourced through the process of drilling into land or sea. This fossil fuel is then transported via trains, trucks or pipelines to refineries where it is used to create gasoline, propane, kerosene and fuel.

Natural Gas

Oil and gas tanks

Natural gas, also known as LNG in Australia, is an odourless and colourless energy source made up of methane and a mix of combustible hydrocarbon gases. Like coal and oil, natural gas is sourced from underground reservoirs, where it has formed between layers of stone and rock. Natural gas is accessed through a drilling process and is transported to homes and businesses via a gas pipeline known more commonly as the gas mains. In 2019, Australian energy statistics found that natural gas accounted for 26 per cent of energy consumption in Australia.

Disadvantages of Fossil Fuels

Over the years, more and more research has begun to uncover the previously unknown disadvantages to fossil fuels. While most of these are to do with the environmental impacts of fossil fuels, there are some other notable disadvantages to using fossil fuels. These include;

  • Harmful to the environment: Fossil fuels release large amounts of carbon and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere when they are burned to generate energy. According to the Australian Government, Australia emitted 538.9 million tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere in 2019, with electricity generation contributing to 33 per cent of that figure.
  • Difficult to regenerate: Although they do occur naturally, fossil fuels aren’t as easily regenerated as renewable energy sources due to the fossilisation required to produce them. This process can easily take up to hundreds of thousands of years, which paired with our quick consumption of these fuels, could lead to shortages in the distant future.
  • Dangerous to burn: Fossil fuels need to be burned in order to generate electricity and as such, are highly flammable energy sources. Not only are they harmful to burn, but they are also risky to source through underground mining. Gas leaks during refinement are also extremely harmful to both the environment and the human body.

Advantages of Fossil Fuels

While there are quite a few environmental and supply related disadvantages to using fossil fuels, there are still some advantages to using them too. These include;

Working gas and oil rig at sunset

  • Cheaper to use: It’s no secret that converting to renewable sources will be an expensive feat. On the current infrastructure and generation processes Australia has for energy generation, fossil fuels like coal and natural gas are much cheaper to run and maintain than renewable fuels.
  • Easy to transport: Fossil fuels don’t require any in-depth mechanical storing solutions. They can easily be transported through means that are already available to us, like pipelines, trunks and tanks.
  • Well developed: We have been using fossil fuel for energy generation for years, and as such, have developed an effective, cheap and easy way to source, generate and distribute this energy source.

What does Australia’s fossil fuels use look like?

According to the Australian Government, between 2018 and 2019, fossil fuels, including coal, oil and natural gas, accounted for 94 per cent of Australia’s primary energy consumption and generation. Despite seeing a small drop in coal use over the last ten years, natural gas and oil use continues to steadily maintain and grow in Australia, as seen in the graph below.

Australian Government energy consumption by fuel type graph 2020

Image source: Australian Government Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources website. Information sourced from the Australian Energy Statistic report 2020.

What does the future look like for fossil fuels?

It’s hard to determine whether or not fossil fuels will ever truly get the sack in Australia. While they are proving to be more and more harmful to the environment, they still remain as the cheapest and most accessible energy source for the large majority. And, despite Australia hitting it’s 2020 renewable energy generation target, the switch to renewable energy still remains a heated political talking point. Switching to complete renewable sources may be a timely and costly matter that many may not be too keen on, particularly if costs are to come from energy bill-payer’s pockets. As such, it’s likely that fossil fuels will still be the front-runner in Australia for a few years to come.


Image credits: Adam J/Shutterstock.com, Calin Tatu/Shutterstock.com, geniusksy/Shutterstock.com, Parilov/Shutterstock.com, Aunging/Shutterstock.com, Australian Government Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources website.

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