British Thermal Units (BTUs)

Sit in a darkened room and light a wooden match. Watch it burn. You may not feel the heat. The light it emits may not create more than a glow around your hand. You may or may not smell the slight sulphur tang, and the trail of smoke will surely be tiny. When it burns out, you have consumed a unit of energy called a British Thermal Unit, or a BTU.

Technically, a btu is the amount of energy required to heat a pint of water from 39 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit. But a wooden match burning in a darkened room provides a more concrete image.

Much of the discussion here on Quads will be about how many BTUs per capita people consume in different countries. The U.S. consumed 330 million BTUs per person in 2008, down from a peak of 346 mbtus per capita in 1989, but still an impressive figure.

By contrast, Denmark consumed 152 mbtus per person in 2008, also down from their peak of 186 mbtus in 1996. And China, despite being the largest consumer of energy in the world, spreads that consumption across a larger population–their per capita consumption has grown steadily for decades but only amounted to 65 mbtus per person in 2008.

As you will no doubt tire of reading if you spend much time on this weblog, one of the central questions of this century will be how China develops–if they aim for an American level of energy consumption, they will consume 459 quads per year when they have developed to America’s current levels. If they instead target a Danish lifestyle (which in many ways is materially better than that of America’s), it will be 211.

10 responses to “British Thermal Units (BTUs)

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  3. You seem to have wimpy matches. Or maybe mine are just bigger than yours. I’m disappointed that you do not even mention the metric (ie,scientific) equivalents.

  4. Thomas, why did you decide to use BTUs and Quads, rather than SI units?

  5. BTW, a minor nitpick: It is Jevons Paradox (no apostrophe). You might want to correct your sidebar entry under “Relevant Concepts”.

  6. Hi Alex,

    That’s right–Stanley Jevons. I’ll get around to fixing it eventually. As for the units of measurement, are you hinting that a measurement of heat required to bring an Imperial pint up one degree Fahrenheit is less than logical?

    I did it because the DOE EIA used it for their reports and that’s what I was going after.

  7. Not hinting anything except that non-US readers might find Imperial units a little odd. I agree that the Quad is a useful size of unit for what you’re discussing.

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