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The Understand Energy Learning Hub is a cross-campus effort of the Precourt Institute for Energy.

Energy Basics

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Fast Facts About
Energy Basics

An energy system converts primary energy resources like fossil fuels or wind into energy services. Energy services are what humans care about, like hot showers and cold beverages. There are energy losses each time we convert energy from one form to another. Energy systems are most efficient when we can closely match the resource with the service (e.g., using sunlight for illumination). The earth is an open energy system that is always getting new energy from the sun.

Diagram of an energy system showing how energy resources relate to energy currencies, energy storage, and energy services

Energy cannot be created or destroyed, but we can theoretically run out of certain forms of energy like fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are a stock resource (we have a set amount on earth) that can meet the world’s energy needs many times over. However, we need to stop using fossil fuels due to their significant environmental and climate change impacts.


Energy

Definition
Energy is a conserved quantity that can be accumulated and is transferred as heat, work, and in matter.

Modern civilization is possible because people have learned how to change energy from one form to another and then use it to do work.

Water Analogy
Energy is like the amount of water a bucket can hold.

bucket

Typical Energy Units
Kilowatt-hour (kWh)
Joule (J)
British thermal unit ( Btu)


Power

Definition
Power is the instantaneous rate of energy use or flow.

Water Analogy
Power is like the rate at which water pours out of the bucket.

Typical Power Units
Watt
Joule/second (J/s)
Btu/hr


Energy = Power x Time


Laws of Thermodynamics

Law 1: Energy can neither be created nor destroyed.
However, energy can be converted into different forms to provide energy services. For example, a space heater converts electrical energy to heat.

Law 2: Heat flows from hot to cold, and there are losses when converting from heat to work.
Using heat for anything but heat is inherently inefficient (e.g., heat engines in cars).

Law 3: The entropy of a system approaches a constant value when its temperature approaches absolute zero.


Key Energy Terms

Energy Resources
(primary energy)
Energy forms that exist naturally.

Examples: fossil fuels, solar, nuclear

Energy Currencies
(secondary energy)
Created from primary energy to provide useful services.

Examples: electricity, gasoline

Energy Services
(end uses of energy)
Things people want and care about.

Examples: heating, cooking, lighting, transportation

Energy Storage
Enables use of energy at a later time.

Examples: batteries, ice/steam


Not all energy is equal.
Energy sources are not always easily subbed for one another.
Matching the resource to the desired service is key.


A cat knows how to do it. Humans make it more complicated.

Cat says "Burr... I'm cold!" then sits in the sun. Man says "I know! I'll go to the ends of the earth to drill for oil and dig for coal and uranium and build refineries and power plants to run my solid state electric blanket!"

Excerpt from The Solar Cat Book, Copyright 2004, Jim Augustyn


Energy Efficiency

Energy Efficiency is providing the same or better service using less energy.

Conversion Efficiency measures how well energy is converted from one form to another as shown in the energy system examples below.

Conversion Efficiency = Useful Energy Output / Energy Input

Efficiency of System = Conversion Efficiency 1 x Conversion Efficiency 2….


A Human-Made Energy System Example: Only 1% Efficient (35% x 90% x 3% ≈ 1%)

Primary Energy
Coal
 
 

coal in miningcart

Energy Conversion
Power Station and Grid
 

power station

~35% efficient

Energy Currency
Electricity
 

utility poles with power lines

~90% efficient

End-Use Technology
Lamp
 

desk lamp

Useful Energy
Radiant Energy
 

incandescent light bulb

~3% efficient (incandescent lightbulb)

Service Rendered
Illumination
 

person reading book with light from lamp

A More Efficient Human-Made Energy System Example: 16% Efficient (60% x 90% x 30% ≈ 16%)

Primary Energy
Natural Gas
 

Energy Conversion
State-of-the-Art Combined Cycle Natural Gas Power Plant
 

~60% efficient

Energy Currency
Electricity
 

utility poles with power lines

~90% efficient

End-Use Technology
Lamp
 

desk lamp

Useful Energy
Radiant Energy
 

~30% efficient (ultra-efficient LED)

Service Rendered
Illumination
 

person reading book with light from lamp

Key Attributes of Primary Energy Resources

Resource

Energy Density

Form of Energy

Stock (Depletable) /
Flow (Renewable)
OilHighChemicalStock
CoalMediumChemicalStock
Natural GasLowChemicalStock
HydroHighKineticFlow
NuclearVery highNuclearStock
WindLowKineticFlow
SolarLowThermal/RadiantFlow
BiomassLowChemicalFlow
GeothermalLowThermalFlow
OceanLowKinetic/ThermalFlow

 

Updated January 2024

Before You Watch Our Lecture on
Energy Basics

We assign videos and readings to our Stanford students as pre-work for each lecture to help contextualize the lecture content. We strongly encourage you to watch the Essential video below before watching our lecture on Energy Basics. Include selections from the Optional and Useful list based on your interests and available time.

Essential

  • The Essentials of Energy. Be Smart. May 6, 2015. (5 min)
    A tour of the essential principles behind the energy machine that puts fuel in our tanks and brings electricity to our homes.

Optional and Useful

  • Introduction to Energy. NEED.org. 2023. (4 pages)
    Provides a comprehensive introduction to key energy terms and concepts.
  • Part 1: The Story of Energy. Wait But Why. June 2, 2015. (14 pages)
    An entertaining and informative overview of key concepts for energy, fossil fuels, and climate change.
  • Worksheet 1: Unit Conversion. Stanford Understand Energy. August 9, 2016. (5 pages)
    Explains key energy units and how to convert and keep track of them.
  • Worksheet 2: Energy vs Power. Stanford Understand Energy. August 9, 2016. (3 pages)
    Describes the differences between energy and power.

Our Lecture on
Energy Basics

This is our Stanford University Understand Energy course lecture that introduces the topic of energy, including key energy terms and basic energy properties. We strongly encourage you to watch the full lecture to gain foundational energy knowledge that will be helpful as you explore other topics on our site. For a complete learning experience, we also encourage you to watch the Essential video we assign to our students before watching the lecture.

Diana Gragg

Presented by: Diana Gragg, PhD; Core Lecturer, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Stanford University; Explore Energy Managing Director, Precourt Institute for Energy
Recorded on: March 23, 2022   Duration: 33 minutes

Table of Contents

(Clicking on a timestamp will take you to YouTube.)
0:00 Introduction
01:04 Energy and Power Defined
03:18 Laws of Thermodynamics Simplified
06:10 Energy Quality
08:04 Origins and Forms of Energy
09:57 Conversion of Energy Resources to Energy Services
15:28 Matching Energy Resources to the Use
26:36 Conversion Efficiency
29:53 Wrap up: Example Conversion Efficiency Limits

Lecture slides available upon request.

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