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Alternative liquid fuels in Britain in the inter-war period (1918-1938): Insights for future energy transitions

Johnson, Victoria, Sherry-Brennan, Fionnguala and Pearson, Peter J. G. 2014. Alternative liquid fuels in Britain in the inter-war period (1918-1938): Insights for future energy transitions. [Working Paper]. Working Paper, vol. 2014/1. Bath: University of Bath. Available at:

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Against a backdrop of growing interest in the development of low carbon alternatives to petroleum derived liquid fuels, this paper provides an analysis of earlier experiences of the emergence and evolution of alternative liquid fuels. We argue such analyses can provide useful insights for future energy transitions and in particular the governance of such transitions. This paper focusses on two alternatives to petrol manufactured in the UK during the inter-war period (1918-1938). The two fuels were power alcohol, made by the Distillers Company Ltd. (DCL) and sold as Discol between 1921 and 1973, and a petrol-from-coal made by Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd. (ICI), which was blended with petroleum derived petrol and sold between 1935 and 1958. Here we examine the background to the emergence of these fuels, the actors involved and their combined roles. We find both fuels received government support during a time of rapid growth in the motor industry, fluctuating economic conditions, fears of absolute oil shortages, and the desire to develop the UK’s chemical industry. Both fuels were considerably affected by changing political thinking around energy security and oil major hegemony; governance of fuel distribution in particular had significant effects on both fuels. We discuss how changing modes of governance, between market and state logics, created hybrid governance conditions. These conditions reflected state intervention to support new fuels and a failure to regulate the market for fuel distribution. Therefore, whilst hybrid governance provided government with the flexibility to respond quickly to changing circumstances, unresolved tensions between policies made it more difficult for alternative fuels to thrive.

Item Type: Monograph (Working Paper)
Date Type: Publication
Status: Published
Schools: Architecture
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HN Social history and conditions. Social problems. Social reform
H Social Sciences > HT Communities. Classes. Races
T Technology > TD Environmental technology. Sanitary engineering
Publisher: University of Bath
Funders: EPSRC
Date of First Compliant Deposit: 30 March 2016
Last Modified: 18 Jan 2018 20:41

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