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During the first decades of the 20th century, energy in Britain meant coal: in the home, industry, generation and on the rails.
In 1937, George Orwel wrote: “Practically everything we do, from eating an ice to crossing the Atlantic, and from baking a loaf to writing a novel, involves the use of coal, directly or indirectly. For all the arts of peace coal is needed; if war breaks out it is needed all the more.”
During the first half of the century total energy use increased in wartime and fell during strikes and the Depression, but it did not consistently change outside these times.
In 1948, 22m tonnes of coal was consumed in London, mainly burned for power or to heat homes. Annual consumption per head in the capital was around half a tonne for domestic use alone. London had 27 power stations at the time. This volume of coal burning and a prolonged period of cold, still weather led to the ‘Great Smog’ of December 1952, an accumulation of air pollutants so dense that visibility was reduced to a few yards, and buses and ambulances were taken off the roads. It is thought to have caused around 12,000 premature deaths in the capital. This and other less severe smogs eventually led to the Clean Air Act 1956 and the removal of power stations from the capital, together with restrictions on what could be burned in the home.
Post-war economic expansion, coupled with the transport-driven demand for oil, saw total UK energy use increase by half in the two decades to 1967. By this point, coal use was in long-term decline, and oil was soon to supplant it as the country’s most important fuel. But oil’s predominance lasted only until the 1990s, by which point the replacement of coal-fired power capacity with new, more efficient gas stations resulted in natural gas becoming the most important source of energy.
Energy use increased more slowly from the 1970s, with dips in consumption during the oil shocks of the 1970s, recessions and the Miners’ Strike. Since 2005, the UK has seen its first sustained cut in energy consumption.
Though today the energy policy debate is focused on nuclear and renewables, fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) continue to provide 90% of the UK’s energy, a figure largely unchanged from the late 1980s. 3-4% of the UK’s energy was met by renewables in 2010, and 6% by nuclear.
Boundless energy? Fossil fuels continue to supply 90% of the UK’s energy needs, though the relative importance of each has changed over the years
The chart shows UK inland fuel consumption in million tonnes of oil equivalent.