A Little History of the Affordability of Domestic Energy in Great Britain

This is a Guest Post by Bob Everett. Bob is Lecturer in Renewable Energy at the Open University in Milton Keynes, UK.

Domestic energy is getting expensive, but what does that mean compared to the situation in our parents' or grandparents' days? Should we grumble?

The chart above shows domestic fuel prices for Great Britain from 1914 to 2007. The data up to 1985 was compiled by Horace Herring and Rodney Evans and been updated with more recent figures from UK government statistics. It is expressed in UK pounds for the year 2000, adjusted by the retail price index (i.e the price of energy related to other 'real' goods such as food).

At the beginning of the 20th century, Britain's fuel situation was dominated by cheap coal. In RPI terms domestic coal was a third of the price that it is today and the domestic sector consumed vast amounts of it. Town gas made from coal was about five times the price of coal. It was locked in a battle with electricity for the lighting market. This gas/coal price ratio decreased and was down to about 3:1 by the middle of the 20th century due to economies of scale and improved production techniques.

Electricity was initially staggeringly expensive. When Brighton Corporation first started producing it in 1885 they sold it at a shilling (5p) a kWh. Translated in RPI terms that is about £900/GJ in today's money, i.e. way off the top of the chart. Indeed it only gets below £80/GJ in the 1930s, around the time that the National Grid was being created. Yet it was such a desirable commodity that it sold into ordinary working class homes for lighting and appliances.

Oil for heating was not widely available before World War 2 and so doesn't enter the GB statistics. After the war it became available in larger amounts at progressively lower and lower prices and ate into the town gas heating market. However this fought back with a process to produce town gas from imported naptha rather than coal.

In RPI terms electricity prices bottomed out in the 1960s when it became cheap enough for 'all electric homes' to be considered. The bulk of electricity was generated from coal plus some nuclear power.

The oil price rises of 1973 and 1979 put paid to most of the gains of heating oil in the 1960s. North Sea natural gas came to the rescue. The whole country was converted from town gas and it was priced to be competitive with coal. Effectively it wiped out the oil and coal heating markets and much of the rising electric heating market. Britain became a nation of homes with gas-fired central heating. In the 1990s even the power stations started to burn gas rather than coal.

We can also look at this price history through 'earnings deflated' prices (above). As per capita GDP and earnings have increased so an 'average wage' has been able to purchase more and more energy. This has the effect of 'tilting' the whole price curve making energy look even cheaper today than it has been in the past. So although the price of electricity in 1960 was not that much different to today's price in 'real' terms (i.e.in the equivalent number of loaves of bread or eggs), the average wage can afford to buy over twice as much electricity.

It is also noticeable that the 'earnings deflated' price of coal is amazingly flat over the whole of the 20th century. I suspect that this is because the price was mainly determined by the wages of the miners.

But now things are going awry. In RPI terms all of the fuel prices have risen since 2000. GDP and earnings are still going up, but apparently not fast enough to deflate away the fuel price rises. Domestic energy is now set to consume an increasing proportion of the household budget. In 2000 'fuel and power' made up 3.3% of the UK household expenditure. However, this is a long way short of the peak of over 6% in the mid-1960s. If you go back a really long way a budget study of a 1760s Berkshire family estimated that it took 1% of their income just to buy two candles a day.

I'm not sure where the road forward (to the Olduvai Gorge?) will take us. But surely if we're all so much richer than we were in the past (through the magic of economic growth) we should be able to afford decent insulated homes and a genuinely sustainable energy system.

Further reading: Olduvai Revisited 2008

Bob - thanks very much for this contribution. For further information, Bob has been involved in a discussion with BERR about energy prices and this article hit my mail box at midnight.

Two things that strike me. First the uniformity of fuel prices in the top chart. The escalating rise that is taking place and will continue (unless we have massive demand destruction through price or conservation) will be unique in our recent history - I guess thats what you might call an Electric Shock.

Second, the lower chart is a fascinating portrayal of how our living standards have improved. But this is not just through the magic of economic growth - the magic is worked by abundant supply of high eroei energy sources. How do we know we are at a turning point? Well its obviously too early to say from the lower chart. But anyone with time to read the 2,786,934,907 words on TOD - will learn that we know pretty well for sure that we are at a turning point.

Add growing population to the mix and the return trajectory will not mirror the entry trajectory.

Demand can be destroyed in a proactive and virtuous way via conservation. Being able to do exactly what we do now but using a lot less energy. Energy efficiency is King and I wholeheartedly support your effort here Bob and any more support that TOD can offer - the door is open.

The graphs show clearly what we would expect from economic demand theory - increased demand as energy prices fall, plus gearing and economic growth from the more efficient use of FF.

As we move to an era of increasing energy costs the reverse will be true, unless we can find an alternative which will continue to produce adequate amounts of energy requiring a falling percentage of income year after year indefinitely.

Sadly, once started on the route of FF use we can't retrace our steps (in the UK at least) - it looks like we will simply have to live with less energy and it will likely cost a much larger percentage of our income in the short term.

IMO, since in the UK climate we must have a certain amount of energy for heating/cooking, in order to be affordable by all this minimum amount will have to be rationed at some stage. The good news is that the Government can, and is, planning for this (though not overtly since that might panic the public unnecessarily). The long and tortuous path to ID cards for all UK citizens is well under way and is the first critical step to rationing.


FWIW, squinting at the graphs and guessing from heating oil prices it looks to me like oil has to go to about $200/barrel to be the same price in 'earnings deflated' prices as it was at the end of the 70s early 80s, i.e. an increase of about 50% over today's prices. i wonder if that is true for other countries?

On the back of cheap energy we have had cheap food allowing for more disposable wealth to buy all that essential "stuff" that we send to the landfill shortly afterwards. It seems obvious to me that this will change and no doubt give rise to calls for affordability of energy, but if it was affordable at over 6% in the mid-1960s then it is affordable at less than 6% today.

ID cards can be used for all sorts of things, thanks to Gordon Clown and Tony Liar (remember he wanted 90 days) we now face 42 day incarceration without charge, compulsory ID cards and a DNA database for all. Remember, Walter Wolfgang was arrested under terrorism legislation merely for heckling Jack Straw. Can you see a pattern emerging here? Are we going to a situation where people are chipped at birth and our every move tracked and traced?

Hey, where did you get my photo from???

Demand can be destroyed in a proactive and virtuous way via conservation. Being able to do exactly what we do now but using a lot less energy. Energy efficiency is King

Why is it necessary to be able to do exactly what we do now? We need to create an economic infrastructure that will work within the constraints of our finite world. Starting off with a preconceived notion of the level of economic services to which we are entitled does not strike me as an intelligent way to face the coming crisis. If we have truly lived beyond our means and expanded the earth's population beyond what can be supported at OECD standards of living then we have no choice but tighten our belts and pay the price for our past extravagance. I am in favor of making that price as small as possible for humanity as a whole, but having everyone striving to hang on to exactly what they have now is likely to maximize that price rather than minimize it.

Hi Bob,

Very informative post. I remember back in the 60s when there were claims that electricity would be "too cheap to meter" with the advent of nuclear! Of course even back then nobody was proposing to actually supply it for free.

I found this;
"It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter, will know of great periodic regional famines in the world only as matters of history, will travel effortlessly over the seas and under them and through the air with a minimum of danger and at great speeds, and will experience a lifespan far longer than ours as disease yields and man comes to understand what causes him to age."

Lewis L. Strauss
Speech to the National Association of Science Writers, New York City September 16th, 1954.

So, looks like we will soon be at 0 out of 4.

How about these:

The day must come when electricity will be for everyone, as the waters of the rivers and the wind of heaven. It should not merely be supplied, but lavished, that men may use it at their will, as the air they breathe. In towns it will flow as the very blood of society. Every home will tap abundant power, heat and light like drawing water from a spring.
Émile Zola, ‘Travail’, 1901


Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country. Otherwise the country will remain a small-peasant country...
V.I.Lenin, 1920


Very nice quotes;

I always favour having somthing lavished on me:-)

Strange that Lenin could describe Russia as small.

Thanks for this Bob. Your closing sentence is interesting. I do wonder if we are so much richer now than we were in the past. I think in many ways we are considerably poorer (we have less decent topsoil available these days for starters!). Consider physical things, large projects that we could afford to do decades ago yet the equivalent is now out of reach. In the UK things like the London Underground train system, the motorway network and in little more than a decade the construction of the 7 AGR nuclear power stations. We don't seem to have the capital to do things of that scale any more, how can this be if we're richer than ever?

I would suggest we have be living off, drawing down upon, previous wealth and investments for quite some time now. Not only is this a fundamentally unsustainable regime but is also particularly problematic when we consider the large capital investments required to move our energy systems away from fossil fuels. We might simply not be rich enough.

This is an interesting point that has occurred to me in the past a few times. We have much better technology today that in the 1960's and yet we can't do some of the things that we were able to do in the 1960's because it isn't economic. eg. we used to be able to fly across the Atlantic in little more than 3 hours (Concorde), not any more. It takes longer to cross the English Channel than it used to (Hovercraft is now gone). We went the moon, starting from scratch in 8 years (we can't even build a disposable replacement for the shuttle into low earth orbit in 8 years now!). The speed record for a manned plane was set in the 1960s (X-15). We've spent 50 years trying to develop a replacement for the B-52 and after at least 4 attempts (XB-70, B-1A, B1-B, B-2) still haven't managed it.

Those are just the first things that come to mind. It certainly suggests there is some problem with the price of some modern technologies when they are applied to physically large projects (ie not computers, etc., which are relatively small). (Ofcourse there are a few counter examples, eg. the Gotthard Basis Tunnel but there aren't very many of these (and I can't think of any in Anglo-Saxon economies...)).

We have built the internet which is great.

We have built wireless telecoms networks.

We have built CERN - which is likely the most expensive experiment ever done. I assume this money is being spent so that once the physicists work out how stuff works, they will be able to work out how to get energy from it.

We have spent vast sums on improving health care - thus keeping more and more people alive for a lot, lot longer. An interesting debate to be had around this point since over population lies at the heart of the global resource problem.

And we have spent vast sums on road and air transport infrastructure. Politicians inability to foresee the significant trend reversal that lies ahead of us make this the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of Man (Kunstler).

But in general I agree - this ME ME ME culture we live in, subsidised by past generation's generosity and Earth's legacy of high eroei FF.

You can make an argument that we don't invest in infrastructure anymore because we're too rich; that is, the investor class is. When you get 15-20% ROIs from financial legerdemain there are few corporate executives that will actually build projects that take 5-10 years to complete and have pesky ROIs in the 5-6% range. That was cool pre-70's, but now big money wants big returns.

Bob, the contribution is much appreciated. Not quite the whole country was covered by N Sea gas however; there are still 1.5m of us, mainly in rural areas, whom the former Gas Council and subsequent private energy companies did not see fit to connect us. As a result those 1.5m households without gas are paying a lot more for their energy in the form of either electricity, heating oil or LPG.

I'm using heating oil and according to calculations I ran the other day am paying 173% more per Kw vs best quote for gas supply. With no tax on heating oil apart from 5% VAT which is applied to all UK energy bills heating oil costs have more or less tracked the crude price. To fill my oil tank cost around £250 ($360) in 2001; a fill up today is almost £1500 ($2925). If Gazprom's $250/bbl price forecast for oil within next 18 months is correct cost of a fill would hit £2500 ($5000).

From reports I've seen energy costs are already causing hardship in rural areas without gas supplies and an increasing number of thefts of heating oil are being reported, in some cases the entire tank has been emptied. It's also interesting to note that virtually all the publicity has been devoted to domestic gas prices and motor fuel prices, both of which have risen far less in percentage terms vs heating oil. Fuel protests have been more or less entirely confined to motor fuel which in UK (due to dampening effect of taxation) has risen much less in percentage terms than domestic energy supplies whether they be gas, electricity, heating oil or LPG. We might conclude that many are more concerned about their cars than keeping warm!

I appreciate your problem. I have relatives who live in the country and have oil heating. They've put in the loft insulation, cavity wall insulation and double glazing, but prices are going beyond this now. A low capital cost way out would be to switch to off-peak resistance electric heating, but it will only be a matter of time before the electricity prices zoom up.

We are getting to oil prices (and no doubt soon gas and electricity prices) where its a case of externally insulating the walls (although they're already insulated in the cavity) up to Passivhaus standards (i.e. an extra 150mm foam insulation), buying a solar water heater and digging up the lawn to put in the ground-source electric heat pump. (I think I'll wait for some more field trial results on GSHPs before I recommend one of them, though.)


This is exactly the challenge my parents have. Both live in the country (separated) with no gas. My father's place uses straw for central heating and hot water with electric emersion heater for top up in the summer and wood stoves in the downstairs rooms. My mother has oil fired heating (old non-condensing boiler) and a wood / coal stoves.

Both houses are 200+ years old with solid walls. One has high ceilings the other low, both have double glazing and loft insulation but I expect things in the loft could be improved.

The challenges are cost on the one hand, especially oil at my mother’s place and electricity for both. On the other hand energy security. What if in a few years time oil can’t be bought for love nor money or we have rolling blackouts in the heart of winter?

Solar thermal for hot water seems obvious – it replaces electricity use in the summer for my father and oil use for my mother, it both cases the economics are improving. It won’t help much in the winter though. Solid fuel (with large storage on site) guarantees a degree of space heating in both cases, so coupled with super insulation on some rooms should go a long way towards keeping warm. The challenge then becomes electricity security.

I think there’s a very good case for domestic uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) connected to a “critical” circuit in the house, lighting, the freezer maybe, central heating pumps, radio etc. The motors on refrigeration and pumping equipment pose a problem for low cost UPS solutions though. GSHPs whilst providing a good multiplier for electrical energy, do still rely on reasonably priced electricity. In the UK they have never been cost effective as the cost per kWh of electricity was always some 3 times greater than oil or gas, negating the heat pump’s improvement. In the longer term is oil and gas become unavailable but electricity is still available then heat pumps will become useful.

Looking at the longer term, to a future with significantly less heating oil, gas and electricity available, keeping our homes warm and lit will be a tremendous challenge. One sure to be met in many cases by being colder and dimmer with serious consequences for the elderly.


I "recycled" a large commercial emergency lighting system, effectively a 5kW UPS backed up with a 10kWh set of lead acid batteries. I have wired its outputs to provide 4 "mission critical" circuits, into which appliances can be quickly plugged across - should the electricity mains supply fail. This change-over could be achieved automatically with a little extra switchgear.

Whilst normally charged from my back-up generator, it would be equally be possible to keep it trickle charged from cheap-rate "Economy 7" supply, and accounting for the charge/discharge turn-around efficiency of the batteries and inverter it would still be possible to maintain the same cost per kWh as the standard daytime rate.

I do not currently have a dual tariff meter, but might investigate the costs of having a white meter installed.

I think the key is to diversify one's domestic energy sources. Whilst the nation chose to put all it's eggs into the North Sea gas basket, the individual is still able to make the personal choices, such as diversifying into wood fired heating and solar water heating, in order to achieve a greater degree of energy security.

I suspect in the timeframe 2012-2016, the nation will have a better understanding of the meaning of energy security.


That's exactly the way I'm thinking. I figured on <750w load to keep emergency stuff running so 200Ah will keep you running overnight with a small 1kW generator charging and powering in the day.

I have assessed 3 levels of response -

1. very occasional and momentary blackouts, 2-3 hours max

battery only max 4 hours TOTAL £560
inverter 1000w £80
230Ah battery £300
simple 100A switch £40
UPS £70
ADSL / 3G switchover £80

PC on local UPS, limited load from inverter for 4 hours max

2. occasional and day long blackouts

backup generator system TOTAL £900
inverter 1000w £80
230Ah battery £300
1kw petrol generator £300
simple 100A switch £40
LED backup lighting £100
ADSL / 3G switchover £80

PC on local UPS, limited load from generator daytime, battery nighttime

3. regular and long blackouts
TOTAL £1830
Whole house 10 minute UPS £200
4kw diesel generator £750
auto failover £200
inverter 3000w £200
230Ah battery £300
LED backup lighting £100
ADSL / 3G switchover £80

Loads :

min load -> 600w day 200w night
CH pump, boiler, controllers 250w
LED lighting 80w
1 LCD TV 100w
Alarm & CCTV 40w
Phones 25w
Fridge 80w

average load -> 1500w ( 8 hr load = 3000w )
CH pump, boiler, controllers 250w
Std lighting 750w
1 LCD TV 100w
PC 250w
Alarm & CCTV 40w
Phones 25w
Fridge 80w

peak load -> 3500w
CH pump, boiler, controllers 250w
Std lighting 1750w
2 LCD TV 200w
PC 250w
Alarm & CCTV 40w
Phones 25w
Microwave 800w
Fridge 80w

In each case you have to assume natural gas is still on otherwise the game changes again and you have to go to the 4th level which is almost complete off-grid.

The issue is WHEN do you install each level ? Too soon and you waste capital, too late and the installation costs escalate hugely. I'm renovating right now and will wire up for the equipment, ie 100A cable under the drive to a suitable spot for an outhouse generator etc. But apart from a UPS for PC equipment and LED torches I'm not ready for anything higher yet.


What you really have is a risk management problem. The worst possible outcome is that you will be unable to make any of the changes you propose. If that were to be the case, how would that impact your life?

I'm in a rural area in the US and installed a 3.6kW PV system about 9 years ago. Our underlying rationale was that despite the high cost we needed electricity available for our well pump, refrigerator and freezers. The impetus for installing the PV system was that during one long (about a week) power outage we were unable to buy additional gasoline for our back-up generator since the gas stations didn't have power either and couldn't pump gas.


Both live in the country (separated)

Divorce will become a luxury as peak oil worsens. I already know some couples who have stayed together because housing costs were too high. As energy bills become more expensive it will be the cost of heating which keeps couples together.

I agree with the basic point on the inefficient of small family unit, in this case the separation was many years ago and family units are back up to more efficient numbers now!

The more critical aspect is the elderly - I think it will rapidly become unviable for all but the wealthiest of pensioners to live alone. I can only hope their children will welcome them into their homes (or the children return to the old family home).

BobE, thanks for the reply. I've likely a similar problem to Chris Vernon's parents as my house also has very thick granite walls, is around 200 years old and such houses are notoriously difficult to insulate effectively. Solar is not really an option as location is 57deg N which means little energy would be available from this source during the months when it's most needed.

I've already 2 wood stoves installed and currently a virtually limitless supply of free wood; that will of course change when large numbers struggle to afford energy bills thus placing more pressure on wood resources. Having said that I'm fortunate in living in an area with a large amount of fallen wood on my own land and its surroundings thus I don't need to even consider using live wood. My wife and I have lots of warm clothing which we use on mountain trips and wearing it at home in winter reduces required indoor temperature considerably.

The one item, which is rapidly becoming a luxury, is the Aga. We are exploring options to use a small plug-in electric cooker thus enabling Aga to be turned off for days at a time and, as oil prices escalate, for all the warmer months. It will be necessary to install an immersion heater as we don't have one given that the Aga is so dependable and gravity fed which means water heating is independent of electricity supply. We do, however, have a white meter and a long discontinued legacy tariff although it's more or less certain that electricity costs will rise a lot in line with other energy costs.

The one item, which is rapidly becoming a luxury, is the Aga. We are exploring options to use a small plug-in electric cooker thus enabling Aga to be turned off for days at a time...

Hi zceb90,

I have a Heartland cooker (made by Aga here in Canada) that utilizes bottle gas. Our LPG demands are fairly modest -- about 75 litres/year to operate the dryer, BBQ and cooker -- but in an effort to trim this further we now use a portable induction hob. Going forward, the only time we envision using gas is in the event of an extended power cut.

The beauty of induction is that the operating efficiency is more than twice that of gas; it's also extremely fast, responds immediately to setting changes and offers precise temperature control (e.g., you can set it for 150C and it will automatically maintain that temperature even if you add or remove liquids). In addition, it's easy to clean.

This particular unit draws 1.6 kW and plugs into the mains. It sits on top of the cooker so that it can be used with the draft hood (http://www.datafilehost.com/download-9132d0d5.html).



One thing that might be useful would be for an independent advisory company who could visit one's property and recommend various measures with an indication of likely costings and effectiveness. These people would have to have a good knowledge rather then just being an average "cowboy" builder keen to sell what they could bodge/install.

You mentioned externally insulating the walls but this is only possible if you own the space around the walls, e.g. if my wall is in my neighbour's garden then they will most likely object if I want to take 150mm+ of their space. Back to inside, what options are available that require the minimum loss of space? What can i install with a maximum of 2" of thickness? I have a very high ceiling, think church, no loft so what are my options?.....

Tony, you can't get a free survey unless you can get an installer to agree, and of course you should go to a registered one, but you can go to this web address for an energy questionnaire to check your energy use:
Here is some info on insulation - the pdf downloads give good info on your options for insulating different structures:
Celotex Insulation | High Performance Thermal Insulation Boards
Sounds as though you could do with installing the 50mm option, and then you have plaster board on top of it - you have solid walls I take it.
Denim insulation is also worth a look:
Bonded Logic - Natural Cotton Fiber Insulation
Hope this helps.

Dave, many thanks for the links, I like the sound of having a denim house:-)
I am quite happy to pay and wasn't looking for a freebie but just something more clued up and impartial than a builder out of the Yellow Pages.

Apparently (I'm told) legally there is such a thing as a 'flying freehold' where your property is allowed to overhang an adjacent one. Quite how you go about this I don't know.

I have noticed a local house which has been discreetly insulated with only 25 mm external insulation. I suspect this is because it is totally surrounded by pavement and maybe something thicker might have created problems. Even so an inch of insulation will roughly halve the heat loss of a solid brick wall - 2 inches will cut it to a third. The 2006 UK Building Regs suggest a refurbishment wall U-value of 0.35 which is about 4 inches of rockwool or polystyrene.

I internally insulated my living room (built 1897) with 50mm rockwool 20 years ago. It worked a treat. The room actually became heatable. I did it in midwinter and the internal wall surface temperature rose by 2 degrees centigrade and the temperature gradient between floor and ceiling was considerably reduced - I wasn't sitting in a puddle of cold air while there was lots of hot air up at ceiling level.

Polyisocyanurate foam (Kingspan, Celotex, etc) gives a better performance (about 50%)than rockwool - I did my bedroom with it last year but it's blown with pentane so you might be a little nervous about fire risk.

Trying reading the Energy Savings Trust booklet Practical Refurbishment of Solid Walled Houses at

or have a look on their home page at

or give them a ring on 0800 512 012 (that's if you're in the UK)



Thanks for the information, i will check up on these.

The Polyisocyanurate foam sounds good and hopefully i can stick it to the walls? I'm not worried about the fire risk since I' don't have any smokers in my buildings and wiring etc is all new:-)

Have a look at the Celotex link above. You can screw a wooden frame to the wall, fill in between with foam and then put plasterboard over the top (that's what I've done in my bedroom). Or you can put a layer on insulation on the wall and then a thin wooden batten structure screwed through the insulation on the wall with plasterboard on top.

Or you can get foam backed plasterboard that you can glue to the wall (it helps to have flat wall surfaces). For example see Lafarge wall boards at


Bob E


If you are using heating oil, take a look at "Ground Source Heat Pumps", I believe they became cheaper than heating oil a couple of years ago. You may also want to consider knocking down your 90 year old house and building a "Fertighaus", almost 40cm of insulation in each wall and they're up in 3 weeks or so.

If you tried knocking down a 90 year old house in the UK and putting up something else you would be told to take down the new structure and re-build the old one, regardless of cost. You would never get the planning permission.
Air source heat pumps are just fine in the UK's climate without going to all the expense of ground source:

Hi zceb90,

"an increasing number of thefts of heating oil "

I heard about one farmer who had huge amouints of his red diesel (cheap diesel) stolen and to make it even worse the thieves just let what they couldn't take away run into the ground and so pollute the watercourse. A journalist friend of mine who has recently investigated the illegal use of red diesel tells me that thieves have tanks hidden inside ordinary looking vans.

Thanks for an informative post.
On the road back down in energy it is apparent that a society cannot continue in it's present form at at the same energy levels as previous ones - for instance, the society of the 1900's would not have been able to run on the energy inputs of that of the 1850's, or that of 1950 on that of 1900 - IOW the energy inputs and prices shape the society.
I am wondering what stops at what level of energy input?
What are the minimum supplies needed to keep our society going?
How much oil is needed for the ancillary equipment to keep the nuclear reactors going?
How much to stop the London Underground flooding, or the barrage on the Thames working?
Power for hospitals?
For agriculture?
IOW, given energy shortages, what stops working, when and in what order?
It is plain that even in the event of a power cut a lot more things would stop than in the 1970's, with every computer down and business at a halt,and with the petrol stations unable to pump fuel.
How are the emergency services set up to run with the power out?
It is now not if, but when, so since the Government is paralysed we need to get some idea of how things will hsape up if we are not to be caught totally unprepared.
I don't know what I can do to help, but perhaps those of us in the UK can at least fadge up a rough picture.

Where I am, on the Isle of Wight, IOW can only mean one thing. Can you please elaborate?

What, you want me to put it in other words? :-)


Isle of Wight is a great place, for other acronyms try




A fascinating post. And thanks to Euan for bringing it to TOD Europe.

I am also interested in the history of domestic energy, with regards to revisiting some of the old technologies, that fell by the wayside, with the introduction of large scale centralised power production and energy distribution networks.

Orwell's 1936 essay on urban poverty in the Northern towns, "The Road to Wigan Pier" looks at poverty from a housing and diet perspective related to income, but only briefly touches on energy poverty.

For example in Chapter 6, one family, with 32 shillings income per week, were spending 1s 3d on gas and 2s on coal per week. This was almost the same that they were spending on 28lbs of flour for breadmaking costing 3s 4d.

In Chapter 5, Orwell details a coal allowance of 1s 6d - equivalent to about a hundredweight (51kg) of coal, given for the 6 weeks either side of Christmas.

My own father in law (90), remembers the coalman delivering about 1 sack per week, during his childhood in the early 1930s, and the coming of electricity to his village in about 1930.

Your figures have helped give some indication of the magnitude of the fuel poverty, experienced by many in the 1930s.

We speak of fuel poverty these days, when more than 10% of income is spent on domestic energy to keep warm. A recent statistic quoted that for every 10% increase in the domestic energy price that 400,000 additional UK citizens enter into the fuel poverty category.


However, we are no longer living in the 1930s, reliant on 20% efficient, open coal fires for our basic source of heat.

There have been vast improvements in the efficiency of home heating systems, with even the older central heating boilers being 60% efficient, and the newer condensing gas boilers being capable of reaching 90% efficiency, if correctly sized for the property and benefiting from electronic control.

Insulation returns the greatest return on investment for reducing home energy bills. With 60% of the UK housing stock built prior to 1960, there would be a terrific opportunity to create employment and industry in running a national insulation programme to upgrade the older housing stock. With new-building work floundering, this could be a way to keep the construction industry busy for the next few years of recession.

We are however, as a nation, becoming too reliant on natural gas, both for home heating and for much of our electricity production. With the upward trend in wholesale gas prices, and the ever increasing need to import gas from overseas, the UK consumer is about to see significant rises in both heating and power costs. The full extent of these rises has seen little formal discussion - perhaps TOD could run some future articles regarding the background to energy insecurity that the UK faces as a result of short-termist policies in the 1980s and 90s?

I, for one, am hedging my bets. I installed a condensing gas boiler in 2005, but have additionally installed a wood burning stove with back bolier, and a back-up generator. Even if it costs me £0.50/kWh, having some electricity is better than having no electricity.


One point I would make about the second chart is that it is deflated by 'average earnings'. It has been pointed in other TOD articles on the US that the benefits of economic growth and increased earnings are being preferentially taken by those at the richest end of the scale. I don't know the exact figures for the UK, but there is a similar problem. For the rich, the progression to cheap energy will appear even steeper than shown in the second chart. For the majority of ordinary mortals at the bottom of the scale, there may have been little increase in earnings and the first chart will reflect their perceptions.


If you are interested in fuel prices past and present. This 1999 House of Commons Research paper A Century of Change: Trends in UK statistics
since 1900


is a good read and has petrol prices back to 1902 (deflated by RPI).

And this one 'Inflation: the value of the
pound 1750-2002'


allows you to convert past prices to modern ones.


Bob thanks for doing this and giving my work a mention (Note: we collaborated on an Open University course, T206 on energy efficiency). As Bob mentions our energy expenditures are still very low by historic standards: we only spend now about 3% of household income on domestic fuel compared to a relatively constant 6% from the 1950s to 1980s. Even if energy prices were to double, we would only be returning to the situation of a generation ago, and we have the possibilities of using vastly more energy efficient appliances and homes. Would it really be a hardship to halve our energy use under these conditions?
As Vaclav Smil so aptly puts it:
Such reductions would call for nothing more than a return to levels that prevailed just a decade, or no more than a generation, ago. How could one even use the term sacrifice in this connection? Did we live so unbearably 10 or 30 years ago that the return to those consumption levels cannot be even publicly contemplated by serious policy makers because they feel, I fear correctly, that the public would find such a suggestion unthinkable and utterly unacceptable?
Energy at the crossroads, 2003: p.338.
I must also point out that 'happiness' studies reveal that our contentedness or wellbeing levels peaked then, and have since declined. Perhap using less energy is the way to a happier life?


In your 1914 to 1985 figures, have you any data relating to coal gas prices in the UK?

I would be intrigued to know just how much gas Orwell's stated 1s 3d would actually purchase in 1936? This would presumably be used for just lighting and cooking, and possibly some small heating appliances such as gas heated iron or toaster.

Similarly for electricity, the average household consumes about 3300kWh per year. What would be typical of the 1930s, where electricity was primarily for lighting, small appliances and for some a wireless. I expect BERR has some figures tucked away.

For the coal, the conversion is relatively easy. 112lbs of coal contains about 1.6 million BTU or about 460 kWh. Remember that this is a week's worth of heating, but burned on very inefficient open fires or ranges, such that it was really only enough to keep the one room warm in winter.

Compare this to the 600kWh to 675kWh gas consumed in my 3 bed household each week throughout the winter months. With better insulation and modern efficient boilers, 50% more energy per week can provide about 200 to 300% more heating.

By way of experiment, next winter, it might be worth trying to "get by" on 50kg of coal a week in the multifuel stove. This would be indicative of a return to per capita domestic energy consumptions commonplace a generation or so ago.

Halving electricity consumption, for many would be difficult, with so many labour saving appliances and consumer goods that have been designed to draw continuous power.

My 3 bed semi, built in 1905 is typical of the property that formed the norm in the 1930s to 1950s. Only some additional loft insulation (no cavities) and improved draughtproofing separate it from its original form.


"we have the possibilities of using vastly more energy efficient appliances and homes"

When trying to allay fears about the lesser impact of current price rise, pundits often talk about how the economy is now less reliant on energy than in say the 70's.
Could someone explain how if we are already more 'efficient', then surely our 'cushion' to reduce further is smaller?

I know there are still huge wastages, particularly in electricity transmission (and the ICE) but given the now relentless climb in commodity prices, can we afford to retool?

Noah's Architet

Such reductions would call for nothing more than a return to levels that prevailed just a decade, or no more than a generation, ago.

Ah! ... the 1950s ... a time of few cars, few aeroplanes, smaller houses, much less population and an almost bankrupt economy - followed by an era of unprecedented economic growth powered by ever more and ever cheaper fossil fuel.

Unfortunately it looks like it isn't just the going back one generation to a realtively constant 6% cost - it is one generation followed by two generations followed by three etc - to avoid this what we need is an adequately growing source of energy that gets cheaper as time goes by. In the UK, at least, the FF is running out fast, none to be had at any cost - little left by 2020, what will we use instead.

Thanks for a great post

I am one of those elderly (71) oil burning rural dwellers with no access to gas. laat year a years supply of oil cost £450, This year a similar quantity cost £870,

Added to fuel cost has to be boiler maintainence and repair, about another £100 per year, In addition the system is ageing now and will require some replacements

I am tempted by electric off peak storage heaters but who knows what will happen to electricity costs

We have one woodburner and free wood, I could try a wood based system but neither of us are getting younger and the cutting and hauling is physically energy intensive

I find it very hard to know what to do for the best. I have just bought next winters oil and we can keep the system going for another year so the decision can wait a few months but a decision must be taken

I have a relative in a very similar situation to yourself. The very old oil boiler and bottled gas hob, electric oven are ready to be replaced but with what? Solid fuel is not really viable for older people due to the physical requirements. I agree entirely when you say it's hard to know what to do for the best. There isn't a simple way to maintain the same energy utility with oil becoming unaffordable, electric prices also escalating and potentially unreliable.

Chris, a lot of houses in my area have LPG. I understand it's expensive as likely tracks price of heating oil but I could not find exact cost when I looked the other day. Do you have any info re cost of LPG?

Insulate, insulate, insulate.

Double and secondary glazing, cavity wall insulation, internal and external wall insulation. Increased loft insulation.


Bob - you said

we should be able to afford decent insulated homes

And I agree with you 100% here. So lets take a look at how UK listed manufacturers of home insulation materials are faring:



Charts from

OK - so there is a severe downturn in house building. But a reliable source also told me this:

all have been dreadful recently as local and central govt spending has dropped off a cliff

I'm left wondering if initiatives to insulate the housing stock are being starved of cash - whilst we crack on with building roads and airports. I'm beginning to find it difficult to contain my anger.

We need very urgently to reduce demand for oil and gas.

"... I'm beginning to find it difficult to contain my anger.

We need very urgently to reduce demand for oil and gas."

I agree entirely but what can you do to change things? I write regularly to my MP but it is like pissing into the wind. Would Local councillors be better to lobby?


If you haven't already you could sign the Peak Oil petition on the PM's web site (if you're a UK citizen it says).


The list of signatories seems to be growing in an encouraging manner.

Keep writing and have a look at the APPGOPO web site - there are politicians who are interested:



I think we need to extend the analysis. We need to go back another 100 years to about 1800 to put the analysis in context. 1750 - 1800 was the beginning of the coal age, which supported the industrial revolution.
As energy became relatively less expensive (compared to previous centuries) the cost to grow food and build housing also declined. The average couple could support more children. Cheap energy allowed more "wealth" to be created. We have all seen the chart with a steady decline in all commodity prices from 1800 to 2000.
Question: what did the average family spend on energy of all types in 1800, in 1900, in 2000 as a percentage of income?

If you look at global population growth over 200 years, it maps very well to energy usage. Cheap energy allowed the world to "carry" more people.

If the average family has to spend triple on all types of energy, what does this mean for them, and for the economy.

the book "The Great Wave" actually takes this analysis back to the middle ages. we have gone thru this cycle several times in the past.


It's good to see that the Open University continues to do good work on energy realities in the UK.

If you and your colleagues have the resources, it would be very interesting to learn how "affordability" has varied over time as a function of household income - and, in particular, to learn more about recent history, the current situation and trends. I doubt very, very much whether lower income households are spending anywhere near as little as 3% of income on energy/fuel. Add a zero and you might get closer. Unfortunately for these households options for escaping the crunch are very limited - and all the more important.

Keep up the good work.

- Colin Moorcraft

Long time no hear from (like a quarter of a century!). I'd suggest that you ask Horace Herring these questions - there's a link with his email address in the article.

Those of us who aren't still at the OU are at UCL dusting off all our old energy reports from the 1970s. E-mail me direct and I'll give you some contacts.



An interesting and detailed 100+ page paper on the sustainability and costs of 4 basic products/services: bread, water, transport and home heating, from 1800-2000. How many of us in the high consumption countries would need to work the 25 days it took a Belgian labourer to earn a ton of coal in 1825?

Also, I followed Energy for a Sustainable Future at the Open University last year and would definitely recommend it. My only complaint was it really needs to be much longer. Great text books!

Another vote for Bob's Energy for a Sustainable Future course Link 1, link 2. I did it a few years ago, it's a great introduction.

Thanks for this study on past energy in Belgium. It really makes the point that if we are going to try to look forward a hundred years or so, we do need to understand where we have come from.

Thanks for your appreciation of the T206 course. Our trouble at the moment is to know how to update it! How can we deal with a global energy disaster in fewer pages and less study hours!


Thanks for all the valuable work you and your team has done.
Your report on buying the basics in Belgium through the years is invaluable.

You could do worse than starting a course by showing the recent uptick in costs and asking if this is going to resume a downward trend in energy costs or not.
For the primer in peak oil, Gail has collated good basic information.

I really don't know what could fairly be presented as the counter case, as I have not seen any broken down figures for where the posited huge future supplies of oil or gas are supposed to come from, just blanket claims.

For the conclusion you could look at British energy 'policy' and the assumptions behind it, and put anyone who can detect any evidence of joined up thinking in it up for the Noble prize.

Just a few random musings from a non-educationalist - if you put together anything up to the standard of your previous work it will be a truly groundbreaking course.

Here is an e-mail I sent to the BBC in response to their asking what we would like to see covered in the news:

We are going to get very cold in Britain soon.
A lot of power production is getting old and will be retired, and there is no way it can be replaced in time with renewables, nuclear or coal.
We are relying on natural gas and LNG imports.
The price of these is going up and supplies are not increasing fast enough.
In Germany and the Netherlands houses use a third as much energy as in Britain to stay warm, as they are better insulated.
That means that they can afford to pay 3 times as much for gas as we can.
We won't be able to run industry and commerce much of the time either due to power cuts.
The BBC needs to investigate the world of power cuts and dark and freezing houses that we will shortly be in.

Someone has to wake up, sometime

The graph of electricity afford-ability shows that it was much more expensive(400%) in 1950 than now and yet people paid for it because electricity is so useful compared with other energy sources. Power reductions may occur,even power rationing but the UK should be able to avoid major power disruptions(prolonged blackouts). Even a few kwh's per day per household is very very valuable(refrigerators, lights, TV,internet). We get such a bargain now, like US gasoline prices 30 years ago, we really undervalue electricity. I would say that the electricity grid is the most valuable infrastructure, even above sewerage( can dig holes or cart away), water( can carry in bottled),gas piped to houses( can use bottled or CNG or wood or electricity) or road repairs(fill in holes with gravel by hand-shovel or use rail).No expense should be spared to retain the electricity grid and people will pay almost any price ( at least for a few kwh/per day).

I agree that no expense should be spared to keep the grid up.
Unfortunately there is no plan to do so.

In the UK we currently have around 75GW of peak power.
Around 25GW of that is due to be retired by 2015.
Neither coal nor nuclear can be built by then.

For nuclear, the government decided it did not like EDF's bid, who could build reactors to one plan and at large scale - they have done so in France.
Instead of this, they are to be constructed on a case by case basis, with all the potential for delay and cost overrruns that brings.

For coal, not only is the construction schedule similar to nuclear, but indigenous supplies have been run down and would take years to rebuild.
Imports are going to be in high demand across the world, and shipping costs are escalating all the time, not to mention restrictions on the rail network in the US to get coal to the ports.

Gas plants can be built in the time, and that appears to be the plan in so far as there is one.
But where is the gas to come from?
European plans rely on imports from Russia and Algeria, and also project that they will get most of the planned increase in LNG.
What do they imagine East Asia and the US are going to do?
Both of them plan large increases in imports of LNG.
The numbers just do not add up.

Gas prices also tend to track oil, so it is going to be expensive.
It is also used for fertiliser, which must take an even higher priority than the electricity supply, and to run the chemical industry - if we don;t supply that, how are we going to pay for any imports at all?

So supposing Germany and Holland are paying as much as they can for gas, as they are likely to with it in such short supply, how on earth are we going to be able to afford three times more than them for heating?
We won't, and so will get cold.

Our lifestyle and sunk capital are also much more dependent on electricity than in the 50's - the economy will not function without it, from pumping diesel for agricultural machinery to running computers.
Business, including food production, cannot function without it.

Looking at the figures, this probably means a tiny fraction of present consumption available for home use.

It appears that the 3 times as much energy for British homes is not clear. It was based on a newspaper article, and this is likely it's source:

It should be noted that other energy use like TV's are likely to be fairly constant across markets, so the difference in how much energy is needed for heating is likely to be greater than the raw figures in this report.
With overall use in Germany at 44% lower, the figures for the heating element at 33% may be robust, it is difficult to tell without access to the original data.

Glad to read all this debate, and that our old publication 'Energy use and energy efficiency in the UK Domestic Sector up to the year 2010', by Rodney Evans and I, done 20 years ago, is still relevant!

That has energy data going back to the 1920s. One point of interest is that in 1920, the average energy use per dwelling (or household) was 161 GJ (about 5.5 ton of coal), and has fallen consistently since then to 77 in 1985. (Table 5.5b). So that indicates the enormous efficiency improvements made as we have shifted from coal (fires) to electricity and gas, and insulated our houses. {Note: until the 1960s all gas was from coal).

What we should also note is that what we are interested in is energy services (heating, lighting, cooking etc) rather than consuming fuels. Thus even if energy prices were to double, as long as we can double efficiency, then the cost of energy services will remain the same. In the past we paid far more of our income for fuel because we used it so inefficiently (like the open coal fire or gas light).
So (in the long term -decades) it is perfectly possible to halve our consumption (and return to 1960s level) but enjoy 21st century levels of energy services. And the less energy we use the easier it is to provide it through household renewables (solar, wind, and biomass).