Ye Olde British thermal unit (BTU for short) is a measure of the heat content of fuels or energy sources. It is the quantity of heat required to raise the temperature of one pound of liquid water by 1 degree Fahrenheit at the temperature that water has its greatest density (approximately 39 degrees Fahrenheit).
Let’s give you a visual for that one, cause yeah, I’ll admit it sounds confusing: One British thermal unit (Btu) is approximately equal to the energy released by burning a match.
A single Btu is very small in terms of the amount of energy a single household or to up the ante, an entire country uses. Fast Fact For Ya: In 2018, the United States used about 101.3 quadrillion Btu of energy.
Wait a minute, how many zeroes is a quadrillion?
Written out, 1 quadrillion is a 1 followed by 15 zeros: 1,000,000,000,000,000.
Yeah, a lot.
Why Do we use British thermal units?
Energy or heat content can be used to compare energy sources or fuels on an equal basis. Fuels can be converted from physical units of measure (such as weight or volume) to a common unit of measurement of the energy or heat content of each fuel.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) uses Btu as a unit of energy content, so there you have it.
EIA collects data on the physical amounts (volume or weight) of energy sources produced, imported, exported, and consumed. EIA converts those amounts into Btu equivalents to compare the sources on an equal basis. So we know how much we’re talkin’ about.
Just for an example, the physical volumes of fossil fuels consumed in the United States in 2018 and Btu equivalents were
- Petroleum–7.47 billion barrels–36.95 quadrillion Btu
- Natural gas–29.96 trillion cubic feet–30.97 quadrillion Btu
- Coal–687.33 million short tons–13.24 quadrillion Btu
Physical units and Btu¹
1 kilowatthour = 3,412 Btu
1 cubic foot = 1,036 Btu
1 gallon = 120,333 Btu²
1 gallon = 137,381 Btu
1 gallon = 138,500 Btu
1 gallon = 91,333 Btu
1 cord = 20,000,000 Btu³
² Finished motor gasoline sold at retail in the United States, including fuel ethanol content.
³ This conversion is an estimate. A cord of wood is a volume unit and does not take wood density or moisture content into account. Wood heat content varies significantly with moisture content.
The Btu conversion factors above are approximations. EIA provides more heat contents for fuels and electricity in the
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