# Energy units basics

How do we compare different types of fuels? One practical way is to convert the physical units of fuels, such as weight or volume, into British thermal units or "Btu." A Btu is a precise measure of the heat content of fuels.

Physical units are measures of distances, areas, volumes, heights, weights, mass, force, and energy. We use different physical units to measure dfferent types of energy or fuels:

• Barrels or gallons for liquid petroleum fuels (such as gasoline, diesel fuel, and jet fuel) and biofuels (ethanol and biodiesel)
• Cubic feet for natural gas
• Tons for coal (a short ton equals 2,000 pounds; a metric ton equals about 2,205 pounds)
• Kilowatthours for electricity

To compare fuels with each other, we need to convert their measurements to the same units.

## Units for comparing energy

Some popular units for comparing energy include British thermal units (Btu), barrels of oil equivalent, metric tons of oil equivalent, metric tons of coal equivalent, and terajoules.

In the United States, Btu, a measure of heat energy, is the most common unit for comparing energy sources or fuels. Because energy used in different countries comes from different places, Btu content of fuels varies slightly from country to country.

The Btu content of each fuel provided below (except for crude oil) is the average heat content for fuels consumed in the United States.

Btu content of common energy units1):

## Examples of converting energy sources in different physical units to Btu

### Example 1:

Your home has a natural gas furnace that used 67,000 cubic feet of natural gas for heating last winter. Your neighbor has a similar house but with a furnace that burns heating oil, which used 500 gallons of low sulfur heating oil last winter. You can convert the natural gas and heating oil consumption data into Btu to determine which home used more energy for heating.

• Natural gas
• 67,000 cubic feet (your home)
• x
• 1,038 Btu per cubic foot
• =
• 69,546,000 Btu
• Heating oil
• 500 gallons (neighbor's home)
• x
• 137,381 Btu/gallon (with sulfur content less than 15 parts per million)
• =
• 68,690,500 Btu

Result: You used more energy to heat your home. (Note that many factors affect the amount of energy a household actually uses for heating.)

### Example 2:

You and your neighbor want to compare the price of the fuels for heating your homes on an equal basis. You can compare the average of fuel prices over the winter (October through March) in dollars per million Btu by dividing the average of the monthly winter prices for natural gas and for heating oil per unit of the fuels by the Btu content of the fuels in million Btu per unit.

• Natural gas
• \$13.86 per thousand cubic feet
• ÷
• 1.038 million Btu per thousand cubic feet
• =
• \$13.35 per million Btu
• Heating oil
• \$4.80 per gallon
• ÷
• 0.137381 million Btu per gallon
• =
• \$34.94 per million Btu

Result: The price per million Btu for natural gas is less than half the price of heating oil per million Btu.

1Source: Monthly Energy Review, August 2023.