What’s the Difference Between a kW and kWh?

To understand what’s driving your energy use, there are a couple of key terms every facilities manager needs to understand. The difference between kilowatts (kW) and kilowatt-hours (kWh) is one of the essentials, but I’ve found that many of the facilities teams that I speak with aren’t able to determine the difference between them.

Here's why the difference between kW and kWh is essential to managing your energy.

We tend to think we’re billed exclusively for how many kWh we use, but more than 30% of an electricity bill for commercial and industrial energy users is dictated by your kW usage (I’ll explain this more later in the post). Knowing the difference between your kW and kWh can help you save significantly on your next bill.

So here’s a dead-simple explanation of the difference between a kW and a kWh as it relates to electricity use.

Quick Definitions: kW vs. kWh

In the world of energy management, the kW is often referred to as “demand” and the kWh as “usage” or “consumption”.

The Car Analogy

Consider two cars. The first car is a Ferrari Enzo driven by a speed demon. The second is a 1990 Volkswagen Golf driven by someone who just wants to get from A to B in one piece.

car distances travelled

The Kilowatt (kW) = Speed (mph)

Both cars go on a 7-hour drive. Once it gets on the highway, the Enzo’s speed ranges from 80 to 140mph. That’s the “demand” the driver’s putting on her car. If it were a building, we’d say it were using between 80 and 140kW at any given moment.

Once the Golf gets on the highway, it tops out at 60mph and goes as slow as 45mph. If it were a building, we’d say it has a maximum demand, or “peak demand”, of 60kW, and a minimum demand, or “baseline”, of 45kW.

The kilowatt, then, is a measure of energy use at a given moment, not over time. When we speak about the amount of energy a building requires to operate—it’s electrical “load”—we speak in kilowatts (e.g., my building’s load ranges from 250kW to 800kW).

The Kilowatt-hour (kWh) = Distance Travelled (mi)

Even though both cars were driving for the same number of hours (the “h” in kWh), the amount of distance they covered was drastically different. The Enzo went nearly 1,000 miles on its journey, versus the Golf’s 420 miles.

If you think of distance covered as usage (that’s kWh), you can see how two buildings can operate for the same amount of time but use drastically different kWh. In this example, the Enzo “building” used 980kWh over the same period of time that the Golf “building” used 420kWh.

So the kilowatt-hour is, in essence, a measure of total energy you use over a specific period of time, not at a given moment. When we speak about the amount of energy a building used over a month, we speak in kilowatt-hours (e.g., my building used 20,000kWh more in July than it did in June).

To sum it up, the kilowatt is a building’s demand, or how much energy it’s using at a given moment. The kilowatt-hour is a building’s consumption, or how much energy it’s using over a given period of time.

Determining the difference between kW and kWh is essential, but so is understanding how they’re treated differently on your electricity bill.  For that breakdown, read the second post in this series.

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Authored By Kevin Johnson

Kevin Johnson leads the Energy Analyst and Energy Engineering teams as a manager in Energy Intelligence.

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