Energy: How Much Really?

battery and light bulb

Most of us probably think of energy a quite a bit. We comment on how much energy we are feeling or lacking, etc. Perhaps we give some extra consideration to the concept of energy when our monthly bill from the utility company arrives. On a larger scale, we may worry about how our energy consumption as a species is affecting our planet’s well being. (Hint: not well.)

To give some perspective, we can look at a handful of everyday experiences or behaviors and their actual energy consumption. Think of this as a particular activity’s “energy cost” for occurring. You can use this information to help make informed decisions about what you do – and don’t do – throughout your life.

It’s important to note that energy exists in many different forms – ranging from kinetic (the energy of motion) to electrical to chemical and more. One form of energy can be compared to another if it’s calculated in the same units. Although we might be used to thinking of energy in terms of calories (food) or, perhaps, kilowatt-hour (electricity usage), here we look at energy in the internationally accepted units of the joule (J), where the joule is a quantification of heat, which is essentially energy, or “work,” as energy can be thought of as the ability of someone or something to do work.

A joule equals the amount of work done by a force of one newton acting through a distance of one meter, in the direction of the force. (A newton is a unit of force that was named after Sir Isaac Newton because of his work on the second law of motion. A newton is the amount of force needed to accelerate an object with a mass of 1 kilogram 1 meter per second per second.)

AA battery: 1,000 J

One hour of light from a 100-watt incandescent light bulb: 360,000 J

Cycling steadily for one hour: 2,000,000 J [1]

Typical fast food meal: 3,500,000 J

One Bitcoin transaction: 9,000,000 J [2]

Idling in a drive-thru lane: 36,000,000 J

Average US household electricity consumption for 2016: 39,000,000,000 J [3]

Bitcoin transactions per year: 120,000,000,000,000,000 J [4]

Rain released from a hurricane over one day: 50,000,000,000,000,000,000 J

Sun over one hour: 1,400,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 J

fast food

You can peruse these numbers and come to your own conclusions about your own habits. For example, notice that the same amount of energy that you use up sitting in a car waiting for a fast food meal is the same as biking steadily for 18 hours. What other kinds of comparisons can you make?

A quick note: the motivation for this piece came from Pete Adeney, a.k.a., Mr. Money Mustache, who supplied a couple of these figures for the comparisons.

Finally, you’ll notice that these numbers get really big really quickly. It’s kind of difficult to keep track of the amount of zeroes in the quantity of Bitcoin transactions per year, as just one example. That’s why it’s so helpful to become comfortable with scientific notation. It can save all of our sanity in keeping track of a hoard of zeroes, and can also help cut to the chase of countless tidbits of information that stream toward us every day more quickly and efficiently.

Megan Watzke and Kimberly Arcand are the co-authors of “Magnitude: The Scale of the Universe”. This illustrated book takes readers on a journey to explore the lightest and heaviest, fastest and slowest, hottest and coldest, largest and smallest, loudest and quietest phenomena in the Universe. Many of the examples listed above come from this book’s chapter on energy.



[2] Digiconimist:

[3] U.S. Energy Information Administration

[4] Digiconimist:

Illustrations by Katie Peek, excerpted from "Magnitude: The Scale of the Universe"

#scientificnotation #numbers #energy #joule #magnitude

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