Guest Blog: Energy lessons from history

16 Dec 2015

Hiroki Shin and Frank Trentmann, Birkbeck College, make the case for history in current energy policy debates as a source of instructive lessons, and as a reminder of the unpredictability of the future.​

On 4 November 2015, National Grid was forced to rely for the first time on new ‘last resort’ measures to keep the lights on. The breakdown of several old coal power plants and the tiny amounts of electricity generated by wind farms that week illustrated just how precarious energy security has become. To prevent shutdown, National Grid paid big companies to cut back on air conditioning and ventilation.

Energy security has become a big headache in all countries facing the challenge of energy transition. A lot of thought is given to new technologies and new types of distribution. But to think only about supply and distribution is not enough. How energy is consumed and how users behave in times of trouble and transition is just as important. And it is here where history can provide some instructive lessons.

In energy transitions, pricing and technology matters, but it is a mistake to think that they alone can do the job. People’s habits are just as important and these are tied to daily routines and the existing set-up of homes and offices. In 1936, for example, the London County Council took out coal fires and installed gas-lit coke fires on the East Dulwich and Dinmont municipal housing estates. Many residents used the new fires in the same manner they had used the old ones, often mixing coal into the coke or keeping the gas burning until they were visually satisfied the fire was fully going.

Across English cities, many working-class households continued to stick to solid fuel space heaters and the backboilers they were used to, un-swayed by salesmen, advertisers, clean air advocates and the promise of progress and efficiency of gas and electric systems.

Our project, Material Cultures of Energy, draws on these and other insights to uncover how earlier energy transitions played themselves out in the lives of people and communities in the twentieth century. The focus is on UK, Germany, Japan, Canada and India.

Japan’s fledging solar PV market, for instance, was prematurely abandoned by the Japanese government when it decided to end its solar subsidy in 2005. Consumers who had previously installed solar panels on their roofs, immediately lost interest in solar energy. Their retreat had long-term implications for the country’s energy resilience, amply illustrated in the wake of the 2011 earthquake when Japan was forced to shut down its nuclear power stations. The UK government’s recent U-turn on subsidising renewables may have unforeseen consequences for resilience, too.

History is relevant to many of today’s energy issues. Although the past does not, and should not dictate our decisions for the future, knowing it will better prepare us for future scenarios. In the winter of 1946/47, British citizens good-heartedly accepted repeated blackouts, while in New York in 1977, electricity disruption caused looting and violence. National Grid sends the comforting message that the probability of customer disconnection only occurs once every four years. History shows such calculations often turned out to be an unreliable guide for predicting what was to come.

Dr Hiroki Shin is a Post-doctoral Research Assistant, and Professor Frank Trentmann, a Professor of History, at Birkbeck College, University of London. Material Cultures of Energy is a three-year research project (2014–17), funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which seeks to uncover how earlier transitions played themselves out in the lives of people and communities in the twentieth century.