Double diffusion occurs when the fluid density depends on two components that diffuse at different rates (e.g. heat and salt in the ocean). Double diffusion can lead to an up-gradient buoyancy flux and drive motion at the expense of potential energy. Here, we follow the work of Lorenz (Tellus, vol. 7 (no. 2), 1955, pp. 157–167) and Winters et al. (J. Fluid Mech., vol. 289, 1995, pp. 115–128) for a single-component fluid and define the background potential energy (BPE) as the energy associated with an adiabatically sorted density field and derive its budget for a double-diffusive fluid. We find that double diffusion can convert BPE into available potential energy (APE), unlike in a single-component fluid, where the transfer of APE to BPE is irreversible. We also derive an evolution equation for the sorted buoyancy in a double-diffusive fluid, extending the work of Winters & D’Asaro (J. Fluid Mech., vol. 317, 1996, pp. 179–193) and Nakamura (J. Atmos. Sci., vol. 53 (no. 11), 1996, pp. 1524–1537). The criterion we develop for a release of BPE can be used to analyse the energetics of mixing and double diffusion in the ocean and other multiple-component fluids, and we illustrate its application using two-dimensional simulations of salt fingering.