Where Does the Energy in Fossil Fuels Come From?


Michigan Environmental Education Curriculum
Oil, Gas, and Coal in Our Lifetime


A Solar Power Bank

All the energy in oil, gas, and coal originally came from the sun, captured through photosynthesis. In the same way that we burn wood to release energy that trees capture from the sun, we burn fossil fuels to release the energy that ancient plants captured from the sun. We can think of this energy as having been deposited in a natural solar power bank over millions of years.

So, in one sense, gasoline-burning cars, coal-burning power plants, and homes heated by natural gas are all solar powered!

Withdrawals Without any New Deposits

One major problem is that we are withdrawing oil, gas, and coal from our natural bank of solar power without making any significant deposits. Fossil fuels take millions of years to form and are not renewable within a human life span. Therefore, once we consume all the available deposits there will be none left for future generations.

Energy--and Carbon Dioxide--from the Past

Another problem with our heavy use of fossil fuel is associated with the release of carbon dioxide. By burning fossil fuels, we are not only consuming energy that has been stored for a million years but also releasing carbon that has been stored for a million years. This huge release of carbon (in the form of carbon dioxide) is overwhelming the natural cycles that balance the amount of carbon dioxide in the air.

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