What is Energy?

“It is by mastering power itself—the capture and release of energy—that societies master everything else.”

The Bottomless Well, Peter W. Huber and Mark P. Mills

The EIA defines energy as the ability to do work, but that doesn’t really help us from a practical standpoint. What’s more useful is understanding energy sources, with oil, natural gas, coal, nuclear, wind, solar, hydro, and geothermal being the most prominent. You can generally divide these sources into two categories: renewable energy and non-renewable energy. You can also divide these sources based on their carbon emissions. Nuclear is technically not a renewable energy, but it is considered a zero-emission energy source. Much of the climate debate today is focused around the urgency of transitioning off carbon-emitting energy sources to zero-emissions ones.

Focusing solely on energy sources, however, doesn’t paint the full picture. We also need to focus on the processes and technologies that make these energy sources useful to us in our day to day applications.

Most of the energy we consume today actually goes towards extracting, refining, processing, and purifying energy itself. Most crude oil gets refined into gasoline for cars and airplanes. The majority of the remaining sources are used to generate electricity, which is then used in various applications such as lightbulbs or electric vehicles. Even electricity can be processed further into things like lasers for LASIK or electromagnetic radiation for X-rays.

What is important to understand about energy, then, is not necessarily where it comes from, but rather how good we are at extracting and purifying energy for humanity’s uses. Only by achieving energetic order can we then achieve everything else.

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