Energy Transitions in Everyday Life

How have transitions in fuel sources and technology changed energy practices and everyday life at different times and places?

The final finding sheet on this theme can be found at the bottom of the page.

This strand lifts the lid on rising aggregate ‘demand’ in the twentieth century to investigate the dynamics of change and diverse worlds of energy use in everyday life. Transitions from wood and coal to coke, natural gas, electricity and oil varied immensely by country, region, class and building type. In post-war Britain, gas faced cultural as much as economic barriers. Salesman were turned away by consumers who held that gas heating was bad for ‘chesty’ people and ‘killed’ house plants. In 1960s Germany, electrical appliances sat beside coal briquette ovens. In Japan after 1973, families combined kerosene with electric heaters. We will look at how new fuels entered the home, or failed to do so. This involves reconstructing people’s values and practices, as well as how new energy and technologies were communicated and marketed.

Traditional firewood cooking stove still in use. Saijo, Ehime, Japan, 2014
Traditional firewood cooking stove still in use. Saijo, Ehime, Japan, 2014

While cleaner fuels made energy less visible, providers sought to give it a human face: the ‘King Coke’ cartoon in Britain; the ‘Strom’ and ‘e-Männchen’ [little electricity men] in Germany. Some writers praised the female character of electrical appliances. We ask how energy was made visible and gendered. Energy prices, too, had to be communicated. Tariffs could form a bewildering jungle – Weimar Germany had over 1,000 of them – and fuelled conflicts over fairness and entitlement. In 1974, Tsuruoka Co-op sued oil companies over the just price for kerosene, sparking a national consumer movement. We also ask about the changing place of the meter and how the meaning of energy changed with its measurement. In new blocks in 1950s Hamburg, meters were excluded from flats and hidden in basements. Monthly meter-readings switched to once a year. In the UK, the 1960s saw widespread complaints about ‘estimated’ energy use, and innovations in ‘tele-metering’.

Transitions from one fuel to another involved fascinating social experiments by cities and states, from modern show-houses and tower blocks to entire communities acting as guinea pigs for new technologies. Case studies in London, Burton-on-Trent, Saijo and Frankfurt will examine the visions underlying these mini-futures but also their quotidian reality. Transitions brought disruptions to cities and households, and debates about who should pay for them (consumer or provider; city or state; this generation or the next). In Frankfurt in 1956, the conversion to alternating current (AC) ground to a halt because of costs. Transitions to a new current or fuel meant converting household durables. We explore the day-to-day challenges of these conversions.

The cultural pathways for these transitions illuminate a neglected dimension of social life, but also have relevance today for those seeking to facilitate transitions towards cleaner fuels. The World Bank recently recognised culture as critical for the uptake of clean cooking stoves in the developing world. One case study will follow these campaigns in India since the 1970s, tracing the historical interaction between local women’s groups and international actors.

These micro-perspectives are crucial because standard accounts have tended towards a homogenous portrayal of technologies and their impact on domestic life. Reality was more complex, between rural and urban consumers, different generations, even within the same neighbourhood. In 1929 Römerstadt, Frankfurt, all had electric ovens, but energy use varied significantly by day and season between those with central heating and those reliant on a coal fire. On post-‘45 British estates, temperatures and comfort were highly uneven. Central heating was expensive and many poor tenants preferred their paraffin heater. In Germany, RWE in 1974 found strikingly different energy use patterns. In one neighbourhood, 42% cooked lunch, 49% also cooked dinner. 17% bathed once a week; 11% several times a day. Such research formed the basis for preparing for future predicted demand, which returns us to the theme of energy futures.

For more details, please see MCE Everyday Life Finding Sheet.

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