The energy density of coal, i.e. its heating value, is roughly 24 megajoules per kilogram.

The energy density of coal can also be expressed in kilowatt-hours, the units that electricity is most commonly sold in, per units of mass to estimate how much coal is required to power electrical appliances. One kilowatt-hour is 3.6 MJ, so the energy density of coal is 6.67 kW·h/kg. The typical thermodynamic efficiency of coal power plants is about 30%, so of the 6.67 kW·h of energy per kilogram of coal, 30% of that—2.0 kW·h/kg—can successfully be turned into electricity; the rest is waste heat. So coal power plants obtain approximately 2.0 kW·h per kilogram of burned coal.

As an example, running one 100-watt lightbulb for one year requires 876 kW·h (100 W × 24 h/day × 365 day/year = 876000 W·h = 876 kW·h). Converting this power usage into physical coal consumption:

\frac{876 \ \mathrm{kW \cdot h}}{2.0 \ \mathrm{kW} \cdot \mathrm{h/kg}} = 438 \ \mathrm{kg \ of \ coal} = 966 \ \mathrm{pounds \ of \ coal}

It takes 325 kg (714 lb) of coal to power a 100 W lightbulb for one year. One should also take into account transmission and distribution losses caused by resistance and heating in the power lines, which is in the order of 5–10%, depending on distance from the power station and other factors.