Johns Hopkins University Press

This essay highlights the great potential that historical research offers for discussing energy-related issues more reflexively in current debates on the “great global challenges.” Tracing the historical roots of present-day energy regimes not only reveals societies’ long and contentious relationship with—and dependence on—energy sources of various kinds but also challenges essentialist, linear, and at times utopian notions of “energy transitions” in public and political debates. We argue that historical research is particularly able to reveal how energy transitions have been and continue to be embedded within larger societal transitions and are subject to asymmetrical power relations as well as to circumstance, contingencies, and unanticipated effects and consequences. In order to disentangle the complex relations of society and energy, we propose focusing on three topics in particular: (1) renewable energies and environmental issues; (2) actors, networks and institutions in incumbent systems; and (3) discourses and perceptions as agents of change.

Providing energy has been an ongoing challenge for societies—from basic foods to the complex networked economies of the present.1 Societies are facing three major—and closely intertwined—energy challenges today: transforming fossil- and nuclear-based energy systems to sustainable energies; developing resilient and efficient infrastructures to reduce energy dependencies and vulnerabilities; and ensuring greater energy justice, both [End Page 295] within societies and across regions. To tackle these challenges successfully, historical insights about the drivers, trajectories, and consequences of past energy transitions will contribute significantly to making informed decisions for the future. Tracing the historical roots of present-day energy regimes not only reveals societies’ long and contentious relationship with— and dependence on—energy sources of various kinds, but also challenges essentialist and linear notions of “energy transitions” in public and political debates.2 Historical research is particularly apt to reveal how energy transitions have been and continue to be embedded within larger societal transitions, norms, and perceptions as well as being subject to asymmetrical power relations and, not least, to circumstance, contingencies, and unanticipated effects and consequences.

Unpacking the entangled history of energy and society has been one of the most dynamic areas of research in environmental history, economic history, and history of technology over the past two decades. While energy history as a specific and often interdisciplinary field has only emerged in the last few years, some of its core issues and topics have long been under historical investigation—ranging from the rise of fossil fuels to the debate about the “Anthropocene.”3 However, despite this richness of specific expertise, historical knowledge on energy issues is still fragmented. A promising way to overcome this fragmentation is to restructure research along overarching approaches and questions such as energy challenges and transitions. This also allows us to historicize present-day buzzwords along the way. Research on past energy crises, such as the perceived wood crisis of the late eighteenth century or the oil crises of the 1970s, suggests that current energy challenges are not without precedent and are as much shaped by societal perceptions as by actual resource scarcity.4 With a view to energy transitions, the history of electricity, above all nuclear and hydropower, is highly instructive as well. A rich literature has explored the history of electricity from multiple angles, including production and transport, infrastructure building and development, and consumption.5 Researchers have stressed the role of perceptions and symbolisms of electricity and related energy landscapes—issues that are of crucial importance in processes of energy transitions.6 Most of these studies have focused on one [End Page 296] energy resource or region at a time.7 Drawing on this expertise, an integrated approach will facilitate a more thorough understanding of the mechanisms, functions, and imaginaries of past energy transitions and futures, while alerting us to contingencies, hidden pathways, critical junctures, and unanticipated consequences of and within these processes: How did different geographies of energy production, distribution, and consumption evolve and change but also persist over time? How did energy shape society (and vice versa)? Who lost and who benefited from energy transitions? And how global were these processes?

Tensions of Europe’s Energy Group is investigating these vital questions and issues from a perspective that combines history of technology and environmental history, disentangling the multiple economic, societal, cultural, and political dimensions of energy transitions in the process. For this, we focus on three central—and interrelated—aspects of energy history: (1) alternative energies and environmental issues, by investigating issues of resource scarcity, energy landscapes, and the ecological effects of energy production, transport, and use; (2) actors, networks, and institutions that constitute the incumbent energy system, by highlighting human and non-human agency, transnational entanglements and tensions, as well as uneven power relations and issues of energy justice; and (3) actors and cultural issues as forces of change, namely discourses and perceptions of energy, cultural and symbolic encodings, or societal imaginaries of energy futures.

The Alternatives—Historicizing Renewables

In public discourse, the term “energy transition” is closely related to environmental issues. It calls for a radical directional change in energy policies and usage, a shift from fossil fuels—with their negative environmental impacts—to sustainable, renewable, and environmentally friendly energies. In this narrative, renewable energies are often presented as “new.” However, historical research has shown that the exploitation of biomass and hydropower has a long history, pre-dating the adoption of fossil fuels. Allegedly “new” renewables such as wind, solar power, and geothermal energy have also competed with and supplemented fossil fuels for a long time.8 Until well into the twentieth century, for example, the iconic windmills of the American West or small-scale water power in Europe contributed [End Page 297] significantly to local energy supplies.9 Moreover, in times of energy crises, renewables often served as alternatives to scarce fossil fuels. In Sweden, for example, wood gas converters provided “alternative” fuels for motorcars during and after World War II.10 These stories complicate but still support the familiar narrative of the “fossilization” of postwar societies. However, it is important to bear in mind that this narrative is a very “Western” one. Many countries of the Global South continue to rely heavily on allegedly “traditional” energy sources, particularly biomass.11

Historical examples not only alert us to hidden pathways and critical junctures in energy history but also to the fact that energy use—whether renewable or not—always involves environmental costs. Historical cases also allow us to critically revisit the tacit utopian assumption that a “green” energy transition will invariably lead to the merry land of sustainability. Past experiences, however, provide evidence of unintended and unanticipated consequences of technological innovations and developments. First, humans rarely behave according to teleological models or progressive dreams but pursue more microlevel individual or group interests, as the history of socialism aptly illustrates. Moreover, rebound effects may eliminate the benefits of technical progress. Having become low-cost and easily attainable, energy-saving LED bulbs, for example, have become almost ubiquitous, resulting in increasing light pollution.12 Controversies about the visual impact of wind turbines and high-voltage power lines also show that renewables do not come free of charge—and that the costs are distributed unevenly.13 Those who have to bear the environmental or economic costs are likely to resist and stand in the way of such innovation. Historical examples provide ample evidence of the trade-offs between different uses of energy and the environment (e.g., concerning rivers, between utilities, millers, fishermen, farmers, conservationists, or tourists).14 Finally, renewable energies are not automatically the best “ecological” solution but might result in the loss of biodiversity and bird habitats, as was the case when the EU decided in the 2000s to stop the set-aside scheme of agricultural land and fund biogas production instead. Responding to high feed-in tariffs, farmers created massive corn or canola monocultures, intensely fertilized and sprayed for maximum output, but ecologically (almost) dead zones.15 Investigating energy history thus not only reveals the benefits and potentials of renewable energies but also their contentious and “dark” sides, [End Page 298] which are often unaccounted for in utopian or technocratic visions of how to attain sustainability.

The Incumbent—Historicizing Current Energy Systems

A closer look at societies’ past and present energy mix also points to interrelations between different energy sources throughout human history—and might even showcase the temporary character of “modern fossil-fueled society.” How did our present, largely fossil-based energy regimes unfold? Historical research indicates that not only economic and technological factors as well as, most notably, readily available low-cost energy sources were central for this process. Instead, it was a complex blend of actors, networks, and institutions that shaped today’s centralized, large-scale power production and networked infrastructures of transport and distribution, and established energy-intensive patterns of consumption. Mutually reinforcing developments created various path dependencies as well as hard-to-break economies-of-scale. Among the most important actors advancing these developments were engineers and entrepreneurs, promoting and advertising modern conveniences while aiming for profit and progress, in line with governments, bureaucrats, and the military.16 Preferences for large-scale technologies and integrated energy systems were not a given, however. They were a result of technological, financial, and ecological limitations (e.g., resource scarcity) as well as political decision-making, ultimately leading to the nationalization of grids and energy infrastructures in many European countries since the 1920s.17 This tendency to “think big,” epitomized by the much-copied example of the American Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) with its large hydroelectric dams in the U.S. South, arguably also played into the hands of the promoters of nuclear power after the Second World War.18 By contrast, small-scale technologies, particularly early wind turbines, tended to be frowned upon and considered backward.19 Thus alternative energies and technologies first thrived in countries like Denmark, where home-based production of wind power was compatible with the less centralized power grid.20

It was not only choices of technology and energy carriers that were highly controversial in time and space but also access to these resources and amenities. Various historians have analyzed energy history as a history [End Page 299] of conflict and uneven power relations—between societal groups, nations, and between humans and the environment. The call for greater energy justice and energy democracy, so prevalent in current debates between Global North and South, is hardly a new phenomenon.21 Research on the “wood crisis” of the eighteenth century, “sacrifice zones,” or the many faces of “energy imperialism” clearly illustrate this.22 The quest for energy resources such as coal, oil, uranium, or hydropower has significantly influenced European colonialism, for example, by reorienting trade relations to the metropolis at the expense of local customers and environments.23 Questions of energy (in)dependence have arguably become even more important in the postwar period, with Western (particularly U.S.) global oil politics.24 However, there is still much to be learned about the distribution of power along social, ethnic, and gender lines as well as on transnational entanglements and tensions. Whether renewable energies will contribute to more energy justice or aggravate the divide between energy rich and poor (e.g., by producing solar energy in the sunny regions of the Global South primarily for the benefit of the Global North) is yet to be seen.25

Forces of Change—Historicizing Social Movements, Discourses and Perceptions

Energy transitions were not only connected to technology, politics, and economics, however, but also intrinsically linked to the worldviews of engineers, decision-makers, and consumers. Culture, notably discourses and perceptions, greatly mattered in the past and continue to matter in present energy transitions. This is most evident in the debates on alternative energies in the second half of the twentieth century. The nuclear age was the most prominent of these alternative energy futures. Starting with the Atoms for Peace campaign of the 1950s, nuclear was publicly promoted as the one-technology-fits-all solution to future energy problems. This socio-technical imaginary found ample support among conservative and social-democratic politicians, and led to increasing cross-border cooperation in (European) energy policies.26 From the perspective of governments and utilities, sharing facilities across borders seemed advantageous, allowing for cost-saving economies of scale and providing tangible benefits of peaceful cooperation. However, when risk perceptions changed, this also [End Page 300] resulted in growing cross-border conflicts involving transnational civil-societal actors and experts.27 Since the early 1970s, many critics perceived nuclear power as the embodiment of all evil, given its health risks or the consequences of proliferation. Nuclear energy was criticized as a threat to democracy, due to the security measures necessary to protect the plants, as an imposition of a centralized technological model, and of industrial modernization, upon traditional rural spaces.28

Since the 1970s, for many environmentalists, the rejection of nuclear and the promotion of a “green” energy future powered by the force of the sun, earth, or wind were effectively two sides of the same coin. However, upgraded from niche technology to fundamental pillar of energy policies, renewables have become contentious in recent years as well. While their advocates stress their importance for a clean, sustainable future, critics— many of whom hail from traditional nature- and landscape-protection circles—have condemned their mass utilization: wind turbines in particular have been vilified as “steel monsters . . . executing and annihilating” ancient villages and pristine landscapes.29 Thus, decisions for or against different energy carriers have always been ideologically charged, denoting sometimes opposing notions, preferences, and fears not only about nature and aesthetics but also regarding visions and ideals of “the good life” in future societies. Most prominently, the authoritarian “nuclear state” has been contrasted with decentralized grassroots solar democracy.30 Deconstructing past and present energy transitions as highly contentious and politicized social constructs, energy history thus not only contributes to contextualizing (and possibly mitigating) current public debates but also to bridging the gap between various strands of historiography, particularly between history of technology, environmental history, and “mainstream” political, social, cultural, and economic history.


In conclusion, energy history in general—and the history of energy transitions in particular—has much to offer both to broader historiographical discourses and to ongoing debates about “grand societal challenges.” Investigating these topics is not without its own challenges, however. We need to critically rethink our empirical research agendas as well as prevalent theoretical assumptions about how energy and society interrelate in time and space to capture the complexities and temporalities of past and present energy transitions. First, informed by large technological [End Page 301] systems and multilevel perspective approaches, energy transitions research has tended to conceptualize and examine the dynamics of human energy use on a large, theoretically informed scale, aiming to account for both (radical) change in energy policies, production, and usage, and for mechanisms of persistence in incumbent energy systems.31 History may highlight some of the blind spots of such theory-driven research, by emphasizing historical contingencies as well as the “openness” of energy transitions, which are often incomplete, nonteleological, and fundamentally unpredictable in nature. Second, both energy history and energy transitions literature are frequently biased toward the aspect of production. While a limited number of studies have investigated the role of—male and female— consumers in energy transitions in recent years, predominantly male engineers and policy planners remain at the heart of most accounts.32 The energy history of women, thus, is still largely unexplored. Third, historical investigations of energy transitions tend to concentrate on large-scale processes. Most studies analyze developments on a macro scale as well as from a longitudinal perspective and are frequently based on quantitative data.33 This calls for a complementary smaller-scale view on specific households or industries.34 Such an approach will equally enable us to pay greater attention to individual actors, their motivations, and perceptions. Fourth, energy transitions greatly varied in time and space. Most of the literature has primarily investigated the industrialized countries of the world. The Global South, however, has (and had) considerably different energy regimes and dynamics that energy history (in contrast to the social sciences) has only recently started to investigate more systematically. As a consequence, we need to be more sensitive to regional, cultural, and temporal contexts and differences. And fifth, transnational societal actors, international organizations, and multinational corporations also need to figure more prominently in our stories.35

Focusing on the multiple and complex interrelations between actors/networks, culture/perceptions, and the environment regarding resources and technology, this medium-range approach might offer an alternative, more integrated avenue for studying energy transitions—and for energy history in general—even beyond the grandstanding rhetoric of challenges. [End Page 302]

Ute Hasenöhrl

Ute Hasenöhrl is assistant professor of social and economic history in the Department of History and European Ethnology at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. Her recent publications include “Just a Matter of Habituation? The Contentious Perception of (Post)Energy Landscapes in Germany, 1945–2016,” Environment, Space, Place 10, no. 1 (2018): 63–88.

Jan-Henrik Meyer

Jan-Henrik Meyer is a senior researcher at the Max Planck Institute for European Legal History in Frankfurt and an associate researcher at the Leibniz Centre for Contemporary History, Potsdam, Germany. His recent publications include “Siting Nuclear Installations at the Border,” a special issue of Journal for the History of Environment and Society (2018), edited with Arne Kaijser.


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1. See goal 7 of United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for 2030; (accessed 27 August 2018).

3. Christian Pfister, “The ‘1950s Syndrome.’” See the recent formation of specialist journals such as Energy Research and Social Sciences and Journal of Energy History. On the Anthropocene, see, for example, Dipesh Chakrabarty, “Anthropocene Time”; Helmuth Trischler, “The Anthropocene.”

6. Cf. the results of the collaborative project “History of Nuclear Energy and Society” examining perceptions and controversies over nuclear power in twenty countries. Arne Kaijser et al., Engaging the Atom; Astrid Mignon Kirchhof, Pathways. See also Beate Binder, Elektrifizierung als Vision; Dolly Jørgensen and Finn Arne Jørgensen, “Aesthetics of Energy Landscapes.”

8. As discussed in a recent workshop on “Historicizing Energy Transitions” in February 2018 at the Rachel Carson Center in Munich; see Odinn Melsted, “How New Are the Renewables?”; Nathan Kapoor, “‘Who Has Seen the Wind?’”

29. German conservationist Enoch zu Guttenberg, 2012, cited in Hasenöhrl, “Just a Matter of Habituation?” 78.

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