Energy 101: The fuels and how we use them

The most reliable source for data on U.S. fuel consumption trends comes from the Energy Information Administration, the statistical branch of the Department of Energy. Not only does the EIA manage these important data, they also standardize the data to a common denominator (in this case BTU’s) before analyzing trends. A BTU is the amount of energy needed to raise a pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit, and 3412 BTUs are equivalent to one kilowatt. Just as the food we eat has a fixed number of calories for a given portion size, the fuels we burn also have fixed energy contents for different portion sizes. Thus, when discussing fuel types it is imperative that we first standardize them in order to compare them on an ‘apples to apples’ basis.

For example, a pizza with 2,000 calories at a cost of $10 initially seems more expensive than a sub sandwich with 500 calories that only cost $5; however, when you compare these items on a cost per calorie basis the pizza is actually a much better deal. Similarly, a barrel of petroleum contains 5.8 million BTUs, a short ton of coal has 20.574 million BTUs and a CCF (100 cubic feet) of natural gas has 102,800 BTUs; thus, the cost per BTU for these three fuel types is essentially equal when a CCF of natural gas costs $1.78, a barrel of petroleum costs $100 and a short ton of coal costs $357.83. It’s quite ironic, then, that we accept paying $10-30 per CCF of natural gas, but perceive $100 for a barrel of petroleum to be outrageous.  The truth of matter is that when a barrel of petroleum costs $100, natural gas prices of $20 per CCF are marked up more than 11-fold, while coal at $25 per short ton is discounted by a factor of 14.

With standardized data we can realistically examine how different fuels are consumed to support the American way of life in order to target meaningful improvements.  As seen in the table below, almost half of the energy we consumed in 2008 came from petroleum to power transportation needs and from coal to provide electricity. Therefore, as our nation strives to reduce its energy footprint, the greatest potential for investment return will come from curbing consumption for these two fuel source-sector needs. Across multiple fuel types, industrial processes accounted for almost one-fifth of the energy consumed in 2008, of which only 10% was supplied by renewable energy. As such the mantra, “Reduce, Re-Use and then Recycle” will also yield high-end dividends in our energy reduction portfolio.


To learn more about how to hone your Eco-Sense and save Eco-Cents, please keep reading.  Energy 102 deals with the role of renewable resources.  The three Society Goal pages provide a big-picture overview and along with the Home Energy Audit provides detailed suggestions for how to reduce our demand for non-renewable resources.

Distribution of BTU’s consumed in the U.S. in 2008 by fuel and use type, compiled from EIA data