Alternative Liquid Fuels: Governance, Security and Transitions in the Inter-War Period

Professor Peter J G Pearson, Cardiff University

Victoria Johnson, Cardiff University

Fionnguala Sherry-Brennan, Cardiff University


Overview: This research is part of the EPSRC-funded Realising Transitions Pathways project and builds on earlier historical studies (Arapostathis et al., 2013; Carlsson-Hyslop and Pearson, 2013; Pearson and Foxon, 2012). Basing our analysis on earlier experiences of the emergence and evolution of alternative liquid fuels, we aim to provide a useful historical analogue for understanding the development, support and acceptance of technological substitutes within socio-technical transitions.

Methodology: We focus on two petrol alternatives manufactured in the inter-war period (1918-1938). They were power alcohol, made by the Distillers Company Ltd. (DCL), 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. Given recent criticisms that socio-technical transitions research often underplays or neglects issues of governance, agency and power, we play particular attention to the role of actors and governance to better understand the drivers for state support for these two fuels. We do this by exploring the dynamics of the search for and provision of state support for R & D and production of these fuels. This is achieved by examining factors including the role of macroeconomic conditions, economic aspects of the fuels (viz. economic appraisal and its significance in decision making), the impact and drivers of shifts in governance logics or ‘framings’ on state support and the role of different actors. Our sources include both archival materials and secondary sources, including the business histories of ICL and DCL  (Reader, 1975; Weir, 1995).

Results: 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 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.

Conclusion: Thus we show how historical experiences of alternative fuel development in Britain were influenced by the changing shape of energy security and governance. Finally, we discuss the insights that these experiences offer into low carbon energy transitions.



Arapostathis, S., Carlsson-Hyslop, A., Pearson, P.J.G., Thornton, J., Gradillas, M., Laczay, S. and Wallis, S. (2013) Governing Transitions: Cases and insights from two periods in the history of the UK gas industry. Energy Policy, 52: 25-44.

Carlsson-Hyslop, A. and Pearson, P.J.G. (2013) How did the Electrical Development Association Attempt to Mould Electricity Demand in Britain, 1945-1964. Realising Transition Pathways Working paper 2013/01. March 2013.

Pearson, P.J.G. and Foxon, T.J. (2012) A Low Carbon Industrial Revolution? Insights and challenges from past technological and economic transformations. Energy Policy, 50(0): 117-127.

Reader, W.J. (1975) Imperial Chemical Industries. A History. Volume II. The First Quarter-Century 1926-1952. Oxford University Press, London.

Weir, R. (1995) The History of the Distillers Company, 1877 – 1939: Diversification and growth in whisky and chemicals. Oxford University Press, Oxford.



Alternative fuels, energy transitions, fuel distribution, subsidies, governance.

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