What is energy?
Energy is vital for our lives: our bodies run on the energy we get from the food we eat, which requires energy to farm, process, transport and cook. Our industries, commerce, education, health-care, communications and recreation all consume energy. Some of this energy comes from the sun, such as our food, and biomass (such as firewood), which are produced by plants converting solar energy into chemical energy via photosynthesis. Water power driving water wheels, and turbines to drive mills and produce hydroelectricity are also powered by solar energy which evaporates water from seas to produce rain which falls from higher altitudes. However most of the energy we use now comes from burning fossil fuels: coal, oil and gas. These are also derived from energy from the sun, but energy that has been built up over millions of years, and which we are burning millions of times faster than it was stored. Our food, biomass and fossil fuels all release Carbon Dioxide into the atmosphere, which causes global warming, and dissolves into water causing ocean acidification. However when we burn food and biomass they releases CO2 at about the same rate that it was removed from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, whereas burning fossil fuels quickly releases Carbon that has been locked up for aeons.
- 1 Energy and Power
- 2 Units of measurement
- 3 Heat and Electricity: Thermal Equivalent
- 4 Energy density and population density
- 5 Capacity Factor
- 6 Energy Return On Energy Invested
- 7 Carbon Intensity
- 8 Safety
- 9 FURTHER READING
Energy and Power
The terms Energy and Power tend to be used interchangeably to refer to the electricity, oil, gas etc we all consume, and we talk about "wind energy" and "solar power" in the same context. However the terms have specific - and different - meanings: energy is the ability to do a certain amount of work e.g. boil a particular quantity of water or move a car a certain distance, and power is the rate at which work is done - how quickly the water is heated or the car travels. Energy and work can be thought of as cause and effect: putting a certain amount of energy into a kettle or a car results in an equivalent amount of heating or movement happening in it.
Units of measurement
There are various different units for measuring energy (or work) and power. For power probably the most common units are watts (W) (and kilowatts (KW), megawatts (MW), gigawatts (GW) and even terawatts (TW)). For energy common units are watt hours (or more commonly kilowatt hours (KWh)). The "unit" of electricity (used on British electricity meters and bills) is the same as one KWh. Sometimes a quantity of energy (e.g. the amount supplied by a solar panel over a certain period) is wrongly (and confusingly) stated as so many kilowatts rather than kilowatt hours.
kWh/y and Joules
Another unit of power based on watts is kilowatt hours per year. Since there are 8,766 hours in a year a power of 1KW (roughly the consumption of a 1 bar electric fire) is 8,766 KWh/y. A unit of energy more often used in scientific work is the Joule, which is one watt second, so 3,600 (60 times 60) joules are a watt hour, and 3.6 megajoules are 1KWh (or Unit).
Horespower, BTUs and TOEs
An older unit of power is the horsepower, which is about 746 Watts. The British Thermal Unit (BTU or BThU) is another old unit of energy, which is mostly obsolete in the UK (though still used in the US). A common measure of energy, usually used on a large, even national, scale, is the Tonne of Oil Equivalent and its multiples such as the mega-tonne of oil equivalent (MTOE).
Cubic Miles of Oil
A Mega-Tonne of Oil is not an easy quantity to visualise and global scales of energy are measured in daunting numbers of MTOEs, so the unit of a Cubic Mile of Oil (a "CMO") has been suggested. (Globally we consume about one Cubic Mile of Oil plus the equivalent of another CMO-worth of energy from coal, about 3/4 of a CMO-worth of natural gas, and 1/4 CMO-worth each of hydro, nuclear, and wood. Solar, wind, and biofuels are less than 1/10th of a CMO-worth. Total energy consumption is the equivalent of about 3.5 Cubic Miles of Oil.)
Homes (and other units)
Publicity material and news articles about energy projects often talk about the number of homes they can power. One figure for the amount of power this represents is given by DUKES (source) of 4370 KWh per household per annum. This equates to about 0.5 kW or 500 Watts, so halving the number of "homes" gives the equivalent kilowatts. According to David MacKay the British Wind Energy Association uses the figure 4700 kWh per year, equivalent to 0.54 kW or 540 Watts, and other organizations use 4000 kWh/y per household -- 0.46 kW or 460 Watts.
North American usage is higher: Canada's Ontario Power Generation cites "monthly domestic usage of 972 kWh per home" or 1.33 kW.
MacKay also points out that the “home” unit only covers average domestic electricity consumption of a household, not gas or oil used for home heating, cooking and hot water, the energy that occupants use in their workplaces and for transport, or all the other energy-consuming things that society does for them; all of which add up to roughly 24 times more than a "home".
MacKay also discusses other units including "power stations", "cars taken off the road", "calories" barrels, gallons, tons, BTUs, quads, cups of tea double decker buses, Albert Halls and Wembley Stadiums. He also provides this chart for translating power units.
The IEA provides an online energy units conversion calculator.
Heat and Electricity: Thermal Equivalent
Some power sources such as solar photovoltaic, wind, hydroelectric, wave and tide produce electricity directly. Others such as coal, oil, gas, biomass, and nuclear produce heat. Heat energy may be used directly - for example for heating buildings, or in industrial processes - or it may be used to generate electricity, in which case only about 1/3 to 1/2 of the heat energy gets turned into electricity. When comparing heat with electricity this conversion may be factored in to allow meaningful comparison of, say, how much fossil fuel is saved by a given amount of hydro, wind or nuclear. This conversion is particularly likely to have been used when "tonnes of oil equivalent" ("toe"s) and their multiples (Mtoes, Gtoes) are quoted, for example in the BP Statistical Review (which uses a conversion factor of 38% - "the average for OECD thermal power generation").
Energy density and population density
Different parts of the world have different densities of population, and those people use energy at different rates (so in cities in the developed, "first" world more energy is consumed in a given area than in rural areas in the developing world).
Different sources of energy also have different densities: a 1GW coal, gas or nuclear power station may require a few tens of square kilometres (including the mines or wells needed to supply it) whereas to generate the same power from say, biomass, requires thousands of square kilometres to grow energy crops. When considering what sources of energy could power a given country or region we can compare the energy densities of supply and demand; David MacKay's Map of the World provides a convenient way of doing so visually for various countries and sources of low-carbon energy.
Generators - whether fossil fuelled, nuclear, hydro, wind, solar etc - don't produce electricity (or other forms of useful energy) continuously, 24*7. All mechanical plants can break down, and most are stopped from time to time for inspection and maintenance. Most present day nuclear power stations have to be shut down for refuelling. And hydro, wind, solar, wave and tidal generators can only produce energy when there is the water, wind, sun, wave and tidal conditions they need. The percentage of a generator's maximum ("nameplate") output (or "installed capacity") which it achieves over a representative period in practice is known as its "capacity factor"; this is typically around 10-20% for solar, 30-40% for wind and around 90% for nuclear and other thermal power stations.
Because of the significant difference in capacity factors between - in particular - solar and wind, and nuclear, it is misleading to compare installed capacities without compensating for capacity factors. (See e.g. this and this).
Energy Return On Energy Invested
Energy is needed to build, operate, maintain, and eventually decommission any power generating plant. As long as the plant generates more energy in its lifetime than it consumes it will provide a surplus for useful purposes. The greater the surplus the more it allows society to provide other goods and services – to grow food, to build, heat and cool homes and workplaces, run water and sewerage services, provide education, health care, transport, recreation etc. The ratio of energy generated to energy consumed is known as Energy Return On Energy Invested (EROEI, or sometimes EROI) and it is estimated that for a modern civilisation to function the EROEI of its energy supplies in aggregate must be in the region of 10 or more.
Even an EROEI less than unity – a system that consumes more energy than it produces – may be useful if it provides services such as storing energy for use when and where it is needed but unavailable, such as to supply energy when demand temporarily exceeds supply, or to convey energy from fixed generators to electric vehicles. However the overall, aggregate, EROEI of the system of generators and storage systems must still be high enough to allow for a functioning civilisation.
See also Energy Return On Energy Invested article.
Also known as emission intensity, life-cycle greenhouse-gas emissions or levelized CO2 emissions, the carbon intensity of an energy source is the amount of CO2 and equivalent greenhouse gases (e.g. Methane) it emits for each unit of energy (usually electricity) it produces. It is important that the emissions incurred in building and decommissioning generating plant, and mining, processing and transporting fuel, etc, are included, not just the emissions from burning fuel itself. Thus non-fossil fuel sources like wind, solar and nuclear do not have zero emissions (although their emissions are very low).
For more see the article on Carbon intensity.
As with carbon intensity, the safety of an energy source must include all deaths and injuries involved in the technology e.g. from mining accidents, from air pollution produced by burning fuels, etc.
This "Visual Capitalist" page discusses the relative safety of different sources of energy, which it presents in this graphic:
The Visual Capitalist site actually specialises in graphical visualisations of all sorts, from the rise of online dating to the raw materials demand for wind, solar and electric vehicles.
See also Safety of energy sources article.
- Stanford scientists have developed a novel way to calculate the energetic cost of building large batteries and other storage technologies for the electrical grid.
Solar energy in the context of energy use, energy transportation and energy storage David MacKay; Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society
- In a decarbonized world that is renewable-powered, the land area required to maintain today's British energy consumption would have to be similar to the area of Britain.