Energy Disruption

Past cases of energy disruptions and shortages reveal people’s potential for flexibility and resilience at times of stress.

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

This research theme explores energy disruptions and shortages in the twentieth century to understand better how problems of energy supply have affected different groups, and how users and communities lived through them.

Contrary to the popular idea of the 1973 Oil Crisis as a historic watershed, the twentieth century saw a long series of energy shortages. The impact of disruptions became significant and far-reaching, as our lives became dependent on electricity, gas and oil. The increasing frequency of energy disruptions in the last century stemmed from a number of factors: exponential growth of energy demand, the complexity of the modern networked energy system and the growing distance between energy resources and sites of consumption.

Making hats by candlelight during London electricity cut in Oxford Street - 10-February-1947. Image No. 10551583  Planet News / Science & Society Picture Library
Making hats by candlelight during London electricity cut in Oxford Street – 10-February-1947. Image No. 10551583
Planet News / Science & Society Picture Library

Energy disruption and shortages were an integral feature of affluence and growth – not only of deprivation and recession – and they have happened in the global North as well as the global South. Shortages hold clues for how advanced societies lived and coped with having to make do with less, and how ‘normality’ has been reproduced over time.

Past disruptions tell us how unevenly burdens were distributed between different groups of consumers. The course of disruption was often determined by society, based on ideas about who should have more energy and who less, and who should have it at what time of day or night. Culture and society shaped where and when the lights went out – not just nature or technology. Such distributional conflicts affected the rhythm of day and night, as governments and energy providers tried to shift electricity use out of peak hours. Energy cut-offs often triggered a reconfiguration of work and everyday life. Energy users did not just lament when supply was suddenly lost; they also had to devise ways of coping with the difficulty.

Understanding how past shortages worked themselves out provides vital knowledge in thinking about how societies might deal with such situations in the future. Today, there is once again talk among politicians and energy providers across the world about future blackouts and a more precarious allocation of energy. Even a significant boost in the world’s energy reserves would not guarantee a fair distribution of energy. Shortages, and how societies deal with them, involve politics and culture. What people did when the lights went out in the past can tell us something about our flexibility and resilience in the future.

For more details, please see MCE Disruption Finding Sheet.


Energy grids are not uniform. They have uneven social and cultural consequences that have affected energy use over time. In this theme we explore how grid developers have envisaged consumers in relation to the spatial formation of grids. And we ask how such visions have been connected to emerging domestic arrangements and shifting temporalities of demand. Our case studies include hydro-electric developments in Canada and Britain. The arrival of networks was uneven in different regions connecting consumers to a variety of material resources and infrastructures. This research theme investigates the range of connections forged by the arrival of grids and how these supported divergent methods of heating, cooking and lighting. Electrified and other energized spaces are shown to be the products of distinctive socio-political regimes that have evolved together with variable and dynamic consumer roles, expectations and routines.

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'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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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