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Electricity’s share of all energy use has been growing steadily, as we use more and more electrical appliances and machines both at home and at work. Photo by iStock

Electricity or energy, who cares?

Electricity and energy are two different things, and it matters a lot which terms we use when we discuss them. Everything is energy, but not all energy is electricity.

People seem to get confused these days. Confused about electricity, energy and what the difference between these two is. A lot of the time the word "energy" is used when electricity is meant, and often people think only about electricity when they hear the word energy. So what, you may ask. Well, in this case the small differences make all the difference. This article is a brief overview into the differences of energy and electricity.

Electricity, heat, and transportation

Energy consumption includes mostly of electricity, heat, and liquid fuels for transportation. So electricity is only a part of the energy we consume. But how big of a part? Surprisingly small, as the consumption of electricity is less than a fifth of the total energy consumption globally. In Finland, the share of electricity of the total energy consumption is bigger, about a quarter. Liquid fuels also take roughly a quarter, most of it consumed in transportation and heavy machinery.

Heat is also important but it’s not as versatile as electricity. 

Most of the energy consumed is heat. Its share in the EU for example is roughly half of the energy used. This “heat” includes anything from heating of buildings and hot water (around two thirds of the heat used) to industrial steam (around one third).

Energy in everyday life

In everyday life, electricity is the most easy-to-use and versatile form of energy. Electricity can power our lamps, heaters, air conditioners, microwave ovens and stoves. It keeps our fridge and freezer cold, cell phones and computers working and runs our fleet of household appliances. And if you own an electric car, electricity can also power your transportation needs.

Heat is also important but it’s not as versatile as electricity. For example, you cannot use the room temperature of around 20 degrees Celsius for anything else than keeping warm. You can’t heat your food with it (although it will cool it), it doesn’t switch the lights on, it can’t be used to power kitchen appliances, to charge your cell phone or to do other productive work.  Higher temperatures are good for cooking but apart from baking ovens and barbecue, cooking in Finland is mainly done with electric stoves, electric ovens and microwave ovens. In mainland Europe, and in many restaurants, cooking is often done with gas stoves.

Liquid fuels have many uses. With a generator, fuels can be used to produce electricity and with an oil boiler, you can heat your house as well as your household water. In addition, liquid fuels are much easier to store than electricity. This is why hospital backup generators are usually diesel-powered generators. However, most of liquid fuels are used in transportation and different types of heavy machinery.

The future is electric

We can conclude that different forms of energy fit different purposes. Electricity has gradually grown its share of the global energy use as we do more and more things using electric appliances. Whereas in the past we cooked mainly using wood and worked in the evenings with the help of an oil lamp or a candle, today we use electricity.

Historically the share of electricity of the total energy consumption has grown around 2 percentage points per decade. If the same pace continues, the share of electricity will grow from the current one fifth to more than a quarter by mid-century. Climate measures will likely increase the speed of this transformation as producing emission-free electricity is much easier than producing emission-free industrial steam or liquid fuels. The future is electric, but perhaps not quite as electric as many of us imagine.