ENERGY: Introduction to the Basics

16 Minutes

Energy plays a major role in the everyday functions of our planet and all its life forms. From weather patterns and food chains, to human society’s daily electricity and heating needs, energy is the driver of everything around us. This ongoing series, produced in cooperation with the Department of Energy, highlights the seven Energy Literacy Principles which demonstrate energy’s role across the natural and social sciences.


Energy is one of the most fundamental parts of our universe. We use energy to do work. Energy lights our cities. Energy powers our vehicles, trains, planes and rockets. Energy warms our homes, cooks our food, plays our music, gives us pictures on television. Energy powers machinery in factories and tractors on a farm. Energy from the sun gives us light during the day. It dries our clothes when they’re hanging outside on a clothes line. It helps plants grow. Energy stored in plants is eaten by animals, giving them energy. And predator animals eat their prey, which gives the predator animal energy. Everything we do is connected to energy in one form or another. Energy is defined as: “the ability to do work.” When we eat, our bodies transform the energy stored in the food into energy to do work. When we run or walk, we “burn” food energy in our bodies. When we think or read or write, we are also doing work. Many times it’s really hard work! Cars, planes, light bulbs, boats and machinery also transform energy into work. Work means moving something, lifting something, warming something, lighting something. All these are a few of the various types of work. But where does energy come from? There are many sources of energy. In The Energy Story, we will look at the energy that makes our world work. Energy is an important part of our daily lives. There are eight different forms of energy. They are: Heat, Light, Sound, Chemical, Electrical, Magnetic, Nuclear, and Mechanical Energy. According to the Law of Conservation of Energy, each one can be converted to any of the others.

The energy can take a wide variety of forms – heat (thermal), light (radiant), mechanical, electrical, chemical, and nuclear energy. There are two types of energy – stored (potential) energy and working (kinetic) energy. For example, the food you eat contains chemical energy, and your body stores this energy until you release it when you work or play.

All forms of energy are stored in different ways, in the energy sources that we use every day. These sources are divided into two groups — renewable (an energy source that we can use over and over again) and nonrenewable/conventional (an energy source that we are using up and cannot recreate in a short period of time). Renewable energy sources include solar energy (which comes from the sun and can be turned into electricity and heat), wind energy, geothermal energy (from inside the earth), biomass from plants, and hydropower from water are also renewable energy sources. However, we get most of our energy from nonrenewable energy sources, which include the fossil fuels — oil, natural gas, and coal. They’re called fossil fuels because they were formed over millions and millions of years by the action of heat from the Earth’s core and pressure from rock and soil on the remains (or “fossils”) of dead plants and animals. Another nonrenewable energy source is the element uranium, hose atoms we split (through a process called nuclear fission) to create heat and ultimately electricity.

We use all these energy sources to generate the electricity we need for our homes, businesses, schools, and factories. Electricity “energizes” our computers, lights, refrigerators, washing machines, and air conditioners. We use energy to run our cars. The gasoline we burn in our cars is made from oil. We use energy to cook on an outdoor grill or soar in a beautiful hot-air balloon. The propane for these recreational activities is made from oil and natural gas. Energy is in everything. We use energy for everything we do, from making a jump shot to baking our favorite cookies to sending astronauts into space — energy is there, making sure we have the power to do it all.


Biomass: a renewable energy source that comes from material made from plants and animals, such as wood, crops, and even garbage.
a black, organic rock formed from the remains of dead plants hundreds of millions of years ago.
Compact Fluorescent Light (CFL):
a type of light bulb that uses up to 75 percent less energy than a traditional bulb.
a material, such as metal or water, that electricity can easily flow through.
the flow of electrically charged particles such as electrons within a conductor or circuit.
the flow of electrons from one atom to another.
a subatomic particle with a negative electric charge. Electrons make up part of an atom and orbit its nucleus.
the ability to organize or change matter (to do work).
Energy Audit:
a program where an energy expert inspects your home and suggests ways you can save energy.
Energy Conservation:
the act of using less energy or saving energy.
Energy Efficient:
a term that describes products and actions that use less energy due to advanced technology and equipment
a label given to a product or appliance that shows it meets tough government standards for energy efficiency.
Fossil Fuels:
fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas that formed from the remains of ancient plants and animals buried underground.
Geothermal Energy:
heat, hot water, or steam from within the Earth that is used to create electricity and for heating and cooling.
a device that turns mechanical energy into electrical energy using an engine or turbine.
electricity created using energy that comes from moving water.
Natural Gas:
a fossil fuel that is a type of gas that forms in underground pockets near petroleum.
Non-Renewable Resource:
a resource that is not replaceable once it has been used.
Nuclear Energy:
energy stored in the nucleus of an atom, released by fusion, fission, or radioactivity.
a fossil fuel that means “rock oil,” this smelly liquid is found in underground reservoirs and is also called crude oil.
Phantom Energy Loss:
the constant draw of electricity by appliances and electronics, even when they’re not being used.
Power Grid:
a network of poles and power lines that provide a path for electrical energy to flow across the country to homes everywhere.
Renewable Resources:
energy sources that can be replaced naturally, such as the sun, wind, and water.
Solar Energy:
a type of energy coming from the Sun in the form of light and heat.
a device that changes the voltage and current of electrical energy.
Utility Company:
a business or company that provides sources of water, or energy in the form of electricity and natural gas.
the result of applying a force to an object and having the object move in the direct ion of the force.

Vocabulary Learning Tool: Make a Jeopardy Game.





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