energy density

Different fuels contain more or less potential energy per unit of weight or volume, and even within fuel types, such as wood or coal, the heat value varies. Anthracite packs more energy than bituminous coal, and putting oak rather than pine in the woodstove before bedtime makes a big difference in how warm the house will feel on a winter morning. The fossil fuel age has been such a bonanza because oil and coal are extremely energy-dense fuels. They have benefited from the long work of geological processes to concentrate the carbon molecules from ancient plant and animal matter.

On average, coal has approximately twice the energy density of wood. Liquid fuels refined from petroleum including gasoline, kerosene, diesel, and heating oil all contain more than three times the energy value of wood. It is no accident that when human societies have had the opportunity to transition from locally harvested biomass to concentrated fossil energy fuels they have chosen to do so.

The miraculous quality of fossil fuel energy density is easy to understand if one imagines trying to push an automobile for twenty miles. Given enough time, and some help from athletic friends, it would be possible to push a 3,000-pound car that distance. But it would require a tremendous amount of effort. And yet a mere gallon of gasoline (which, despite recent price increases, still costs far less in the United States than an equivalent amount of good coffee) can easily power a car that far in the time it takes to drink a mocha latte. The fact that renewable energy is, in general, more diffuse than fossil fuel presents the primary challenge to transitioning from the current energy economy to a renewables-powered future.