Connections and Disconnections

Energy networks have transformed space, time and everyday lives in the twentieth century, but the transformation has been hugely diverse.

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

Energy spaces can be understood as environments defined by processes and infrastructures of extraction, generation, transmission, distribution or consumption. Over the course of the twentieth century such spaces have changed dramatically across the developed world. Systems based around the local extraction of wood to fuel open fires have been gradually, though not completely or uniformly, replaced by centralized generating plants, pylons and wires delivering electricity direct to urban and rural homes. Changing spaces of energy have coincided with major social transformations in ways of life. But how emerging spaces of energy transformed lives, publically and privately, and how people living in rural and urban areas engaged with energy infrastructures has been highly differentiated.

„Mehr Strom für den Aufbau des Sozialismus” 1952 [“More electricity for building socialism”, East Germany 1952] Source: Berlin, Landesarchiv.

Case studies of hydroelectric power development in the Scottish Highlands and in several Canadian provinces during the twentieth century highlight such differentiation. Regional timelines varied significantly, but HEP networks generally began their expansion from urban areas into the countryside, where rural households were still cooking and heating with wood or coal. Private or public interest groups promoted electric power through visions of everyday lives transformed by this ‘modern miracle’.

In reality, networks were never universally transforming or unanimously accepted, and not all people or places were connected. Local energy forms, such as wood for heating or gas lighting, persisted alongside centralized electricity grids. New energy networks also created new vulnerabilities as well as freedoms. Small-scale HEP projects were particularly susceptible to natural variations in water flow, as newly connected consumers in British Columbia found when lights failed during early twentieth-century droughts. Spatial reorganizations and scaling-up of grids that followed aimed to eradicate service intermittency, but this was never fully achieved.

How were energy grids imagined, accepted or resisted by communities that suddenly found themselves connected to, and dependent on, other regions? The possibility of moving energy between communities has inspired visions of integration but also fears of dependency and conflict. Network developers were sometimes accused of sacrificing local interests, leaving some communities literally in the dark. Ontario initially connected its HEP grid to New England across the border rather than to the rest of Canada, and in the process established connections that would set the scene for future controversies and cascading failures. Echoing post-war conflicts, campaigners against pylon extensions in the Scottish Highlands recently called for a policy of ‘Local Generation for Local Demand’.

Connecting energy spaces also affected time and the dynamics of demand. Selling electricity involved selling time in pursuit of a favourable load factor, with varying degrees of success. For central generating stations in British Columbia in the 1920s a goal was an electric stove in every home, but convincing housewives to cook electrically proved a serious challenge requiring new forms of domestic science and space. Once acquired, widely shared daily routines created problems of demand peaks in Britain for much of the twentieth century. Providers sought to spread the load. Merseyside women in 1963 were advised to cook Christmas dinner overnight as peak electricity demand outstripped capacity.

In exploring variable encounters with infrastructures in space and time our research challenges conceptualizations of electricity as a universally modernizing force acting upon society. Our case studies highlight how electrified landscapes were co-constructed by the agency and resilience of ordinary people as they encountered new arrangements in their roles as users or non-users, customers or citizens.

Interfaces between the socio-political visions of system builders and electrified lives of ordinary people can be seen in the evolving spatial formations of material infrastructures. Some of these formations persist today, while others have been abandoned. Reflecting on how people coped with new spatial formations of energy in the past helps us to conceptualize sustainable energy spaces of the future. What, for example, might past transitions from locally available sources to complex distribution chains tell us about the sustainability of new micro-grid formations today, or about the resilience of some traditional consumer practices?

For more details, please see MCE Space Finding Sheet.


'Communicating Material Cultures of Energy' project is a one-year public engagement funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The project explores various ways to improve the public communication of energy-related information and knowledge by bringing together 'energy communicators' across sectors and industries.

read more

This toolkit takes stock of insights derived from contemporary communication practices, but it is also informed by recent research from the field of communication studies and the social science of energy. The five tools in this toolkit are designed to address core issues in energy communication. They are intended to be used as a set of adaptive methods to help communicators reflect on their communicative practices by using their own projects as examples. The exercises also offer somewhat unconventional methods through which to plan and review communication projects in order to reconsider the fundamental question of how to approach energy communication.

read more

Throughout the twentieth century projected visions of future energy supply and demand have fluctuated between utopian and dystopian scenarios. Long before the 1973 oil crisis concerns over long-term energy shortages led national governments, international organizations, experts and consumers, to predict what an energy future ‘might’ look like. These forecasts reflected current anxieties and hopes for the future, building short-term concerns into long-term horizons. This strand returns these forecasts to their historical context. It considers who had the authority to make the forecasts, and what wider political and social ideologies were incorporated into forecasting practices? It looks at the shifting role of the ‘expert’ and the changing role of more popular non-technical voices, including social movements and consumers, in authorised and unauthorised predictions of the future.

read more

Black-outs, brown-outs and other disruptions of energy are today often associated with poor and developing countries, or as exceptional moments such as the Oil Crises of the 1970s. But energy shortages were a frequent feature also in advanced industrial societies and across the twentieth century. In this theme we are especially interested in the social, cultural and political histories of such disruptions and what they can tell us about a society’s attitudes to energy, ideas of ‘normality’ and fairness. Shortages tested a society’s ability to make do with less, and revealed norms and assumptions about fair shares and appropriate usage. In the case of electric networks, peak demand at particular times of day created a particular pressure. With selective case studies from Japan, Britain, and West and East Germany we examine the politics of disruption, paying particular attention to questions of distribution between different groups of consumers (from households to heavy industrial users) and to the politics of time. Disruptions reveal otherwise hidden dynamics and unspoken assumptions. They reveal people’s potential for flexibility and resilience at a time of stress. Such knowledge is vital to help us think about how we might deal with similar situations in the future.

read more

What are the dynamics of change that lurk behind the trillions of KWhs that we in the developed world have come to treat as normal? The transition from wood and coal to coke, electricity, natural gas and oil varied immensely by country, region, class and building type. We examine people's values and practices as well as how new fuels were marketed. We look at how energy was gendered, made visible, priced and communicated, and at earlier efforts to modify behaviour and promote new technologies, with case studies in London, Burton-on-Trent, Saijo City (Japan) and Frankfurt am Main. These diverse energy worlds provide historical insights for energy transitions today and prospects for a more sustainable future.

read more