background image

Demystifying energy: Understanding the basics for better decision-making

author image

By Lamé Verre

· 5 min read


It is common to use ‘energy’ and ‘electricity’ interchangeably in everyday conversations. However, recognising that these terms are not the same can empower us to make more informed choices about fuelling our lives and the planet.

This understanding is not just theoretical but has practical implications. It can guide us through the intricacies of our energy systems, facilitate a shift in demand, and contribute to a more sustainable future.

Let's dive into the distinctions and why getting them right is important.

Exploring the forms of energy

Energy is a universal concept encompassing the ability to work or produce change. It manifests in various forms: kinetic (movement), potential (stored energy), thermal (heat), chemical (stored in bonds of molecules), and more.

The sun’s rays, food, and fuel powering cars are all energy sources we interact with daily.

As mentioned above, energy is a fundamental concept in physics that refers to the ability of a system to perform work. It comes in various forms, such as:

  • Kinetic Energy (Energy of motion)
  • Potential Energy (Energy due to an object’s position or state)
  • Thermal Energy (Energy associated with the temperature of an object)
  • Chemical Energy (Energy stored in chemical bonds)
  • Electrical Energy (Energy carried by moving electrons)

At the heart of energy lies the principle, or energy conservation law. This law states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed; it can only be converted.

It is a fundamental concept that applies across all scales, from the microscopic world of subatomic particles to the vastness of galaxies. Understanding this law deepens our understanding of energy and connects us to the broader scientific principles that govern our universe.

On the other hand, electricity is a specific form of energy (Electrical Energy or Energy carried by moving electrons). The flow of electric charge, typically through wires, powers our homes, devices, and industries.

We use electricity when we turn on a light, use our household appliances or charge our phones. However, it’s important to note that electricity is not an energy source but an energy use. It is a conduit or a medium that transports energy from one location to another, enlightening us about the fascinating ways energy can be harnessed and utilised.

Daily uses of energy and greenhouse gas emissions contribution

The energy forms above have four main uses (primary energy use) in our daily lives:

  1. Electricity Generation (Electrical Energy)
  2. Transportation (Kinetic Energy)
  3. Built Environment (Thermal Energy)
  4. Industry (uses all of the above).

With that in mind, the world emits around 50 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases (GHG) yearly through this energy use, and with increasing demand, clean energy supply still needs to keep pace with that growing demand.

Global GHG emissions mainly come from energy use, with 73.2% emitted from Electricity, Heat, and Transport and 5.2% from Direct Industrial Processes.

The other big buckets of GHG are agriculture, forestry, and land use, which account for 18.4% of the total.

Tackling emissions:

So, how can we tackle these emissions? In simple terms,

  • Electrify Everything
  • Clean up the Electricity.
  • Where we cannot electrify, we innovate around alternative fuels.
  • Caborn capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) for the last mile.

However, on a more technical level, we can do several things by each emissions segment, most of which many companies and countries already do.

  • Electricity Generation: Transitioning to renewable energy sources (solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal), improving energy efficiency, and developing carbon capture and storage technologies.
  • Transportation: Promoting electric vehicles, enhancing public transportation systems, and improving fuel efficiency standards.
  • Built Environment (Buildings): Reduce waste through retrofitting, electrifying heat, and leveraging technology to manage heating and cooling systems.
  • Industry: Adopting cleaner production technologies, increasing energy efficiency, using alternative materials with lower carbon footprints and reusing waste from industrial heat and energy collaboration along the value chain

Why the distinction matters

Understanding the difference between energy and electricity is crucial for several reasons:

  • Energy Policy and Sustainability: Effective energy policies require clarity. Promoting renewable energy sources (like solar and wind) isn’t just about creating electricity; it’s about harnessing sustainable energy that reduces our carbon footprint.
  • Efficiency and Conservation: Knowing that electricity is just one form of energy helps us appreciate the importance of energy conservation. For example, improving insulation in homes saves thermal energy, reducing the need for electrical heating.
  • Technological Development: Innovations in energy storage (like batteries) and energy efficiency technologies can be better directed when we understand the full spectrum of energy forms and their conversion into electricity.


While electricity is a crucial part of our energy landscape, it’s essential to recognise that it is just one piece of a much larger puzzle. By understanding the distinction between energy and electricity, we can better grasp the complexities of our energy systems and contribute to a more sustainable future.

Making informed decisions about energy use, embracing renewable sources, and adopting innovative technologies are vital to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and fostering a lower-carbon world.

This article is also published on the author's blog. illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

Did you enjoy this illuminem voice? Support us by sharing this article!
author photo

About the author

Lamé Verre is a Fellow of the Energy Institute and the Co-founder and Chair of the Advisory Board | Lean in Equity & Sustainability. She also sits on the Global Future Council - The Future of the Energy Transition at the World Economic Forum

Other illuminem Voices

Related Posts

You cannot miss it!

Weekly. Free. Your Top 10 Sustainability & Energy Posts.

You can unsubscribe at any time (read our privacy policy)