Beyond Fuel Switching and Substitution: A History of Fuel Supply on the Isle of Man

Peel, Isle of Man. Source: Unsplash, Oliver King.

It is largely accepted that replacing fossil fuels with renewable sources of energy is an important method of carbon reduction. Current proposals from the UK government, for instance, include adding hydrogen to the gas system or using decarbonised electricity rather than oil or gas for transport and for heating. In this essay, we take a closer look at the practicalities of switching fuels and substituting one source of power for another.

We argue that fuels are part of living systems of supply and demand, and that past arrangements matter for what happens next. This is important for what fuel switching involves, and for when, where, and how it occurs.

In order to bring these features into view, we describe the histories of energy supply in just one location. Since almost all the fuel used on the Isle of Man is imported, it is possible to track switches from coal to diesel and from diesel to gas, and to show how these transitions affect the geographical distribution of gas and electricity, and how this changes over time.

The following sequence illustrates some of these shifts, starting with the production of electricity in the 1890s through to the development of electricity and gas connections to the UK (in 2000 for electricity and 2002 for gas).

Click on the dots under the image, or the arrows at the side, to move through these.

These maps reveal aspects of fuel switching that apply in other places as well but are typically harder to spot.  Re-running the sequence, one step at a time, shows how fuels and geographies of provision connect.


generating electricity from imported coal

Electricity was first generated in Douglas in the 1890s, using imported coal.  To begin with, the distribution network did not extend beyond the town.

More coal fired power stations and an island wide electricity grid

Forty years later there were three coal fired power stations in Douglas, one in Ramsey in the north, and one in Peel on the west coast. Power stations were built at ports because coal was transported by ship and stockpiled until it was used.

                                           Coal importation. Source: Unsplash, Justin Wilkins.

By contrast, electricity was distributed through a network of wires. By the 1930s, there was an island-wide grid and most households had a mains electricity supply.

Additional diesel fired power stations

In the 1960s, one of the power stations in Douglas was converted from coal to diesel – also imported by ship.  This was a time when diesel, which is more ‘energy dense’ than coal, was cheaper to use.  During the 1970s, additional diesel fired power stations were built in Peel and Ramsey.

Diesel and hydro replace coal

In the 1980s, a small hydro power station was built next to the Sulby Reservoir, feeding electricity into the grid.

Sulby Reservoir, Isle of Man. Source: Unsplash, James Qualtrough.

The move from coal to diesel and the addition of hydro power made a difference to the cost of electricity, and to how it was produced, but not to the distribution system.  During this period, the demand for electricity, and the number of powered appliances increased.


Town Gas made from imported coal

The history of gas supply takes a different course.  In the 1830s, imported coal was used to make town gas in Douglas, Laxey, Ramsey, Peel and Castletown. Gas mains, which were expensive to lay, were only built in these locations.  Rural areas relied on electricity and on other fuels including coal, wood, paraffin and oil.

The Distribution of LPG

This pattern changed with the shift from coal to liquified petroleum gas (LPG) in the 1950s.  LPG was initially imported to Douglas, vapourised and distributed through the existing gas mains.  However, appliances designed to run on town gas would not work with gas produced from LPG.  In this case, fuel switching involved the conversion of devices like cookers and fridges.

There was another important difference. Unlike town gas, which had to be piped, bottled LPG could be transported by road and stored in depots across the island.  Access to LPG meant that people living in the countryside could install gas central heating systems instead of, or alongside, traditional forms of solid fuel.

As these maps show, patterns of fuel switching are not the same in rural and urban settings. This reflects the physical properties of the fuels involved, and related practicalities of distribution and conversion.

Less obvious, but no less important, the spread of gas and electricity (including production, distribution, appliance design, and patterns of consumption) matters for the practicalities of heating, lighting and cooking.

Moreover, moving from gas to electric lighting, or from coal to gas central heating matters for the relative significance of other fuels.


Gas and Electricity Interconnections

In 2000, an electricity cable was laid between the Isle of Man and Lancashire. Three years later, a spur off the pipeline between Ireland and Scotland brought natural gas to the Isle of Man. These developments changed the landscape of supply and transformed the island’s place in the international energy system.

Since 2003 most of the electricity generated on the island has been produced in Pulrose, near Douglas, using turbines supplied by the gas interconnector. There are also two diesel powered plants (Pulrose and Peel), a waste to energy system in Douglas and the hydro system at Sulby.

Over the last twenty years, gas turbines have been used to generate electricity and export it back to the UK.

The goal of ensuring that 75% of the island’s electricity is from renewable sources by 2035 depends on reducing the importance of gas.  Reports and plans for the future suggest that the island should import more renewable energy from the UK, via the interconnector, develop biofuels and stop generating and exporting electricity made from gas.

Fuel switching - limits and possibilities

On the Isle of Man, fuel switching is bound up with the evolution of energy infrastructures, and with the ongoing interaction of supply and demand. Geographies and systems of provision are layered on top of each other, they are changing all the time and they are not the same in towns, in towns with ports, or in rural areas. These are important insights that apply in other places as well.

Interconnectors across the British Isles. Source of Original Image: Vecteezy, marcolivolsi04.

The mixture of fuels used in society is part of a broader complex of distribution networks, infrastructures, and political and economic trends, interwoven with related patterns of appliance use, consumption and demand.

The infrastructural changes we have described (like the interconnector, or town gas networks), changes in expectation (for example, of central heating), or market fluctuations in the price of fuels (like the price of coal and diesel) have both local and global “causes” and “effects”, the combination of which matter for which fuels are switched and for when, how, and where that happens.

As this essay shows,  efforts to replace higher with lower carbon fuels represent interventions in social and technical systems, the characteristics of which are defined by previous histories and practices, and by necessarily uneven geographies of provision.

Seeing fuel switching in this way reminds us that different fuel sources cannot be understood in isolation and that energy systems of the future relate to those of the past.

Written by Peter Forman (, Elizabeth Shove (, Carolynne Lord (, and Stanley Blue (