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What role for Government in keeping the lights on?

We face an ever-increasing demand for energy. As a result, Governments have an instinctive desire to keep the lights on, and to do so in a way which is affordable and environmentally sustainable. But, understandable though this instinct certainly is, what role should Governments actually take in encouraging new technologies designed to address the problem? Should they be active backers and promoters, or is it better to be more circumspect? 

Click on the icons below to read our authors' analyses of these questions.


The great nineteenth century scientist Michael Faraday remarked in his Christmas lectures at the Royal Institution in 1848 that “there is no more open door by which you can enter into the study of natural philosophy than by considering the physical phenomena of a candle.” Looked at from the right angle, we see in the flickering candlelight the things of thermodynamics, of electromagnetism, even of quantum mechanics.


In much the same way as Faraday’s “chemical history” gives us a perspective on the broad themes of modern physics and chemistry, we can learn a great deal about the capacity for human endeavour by considering the remarkable transformation in artificial light from a precious commodity into something available to all of us, all the time. 


Our prehistoric ancestors would have to gather and chop wood for 60 hours to produce the equivalent in terms of energy output of a modern light build shining for a mere 54 minutes. Even when candles became available, they were prohibitively expensive for all but a few. Those earliest candles were made from animal fats, so provided only a flickering and smelly flame. 


By the 18th century, candles became more widely available, but remained unaffordable to most. George Washington, for instance, estimated that his five hours of nightly reading cost him the equivalent of more than $1,000 at today’s prices. 


It was not until the invention of the light bulb that things changed decisively. By the beginning of the 20th century, that 60 hours of work which gave our ancestors an hour of light could provide closer to 10 days. Light bulbs would burn 100 times brighter than candles and burn without flicker or smell. steadily. By 1920, 60 hours of work could pay for 5 months of stable light. By 1990, that figure was 10 years and today it is 52 years.


The cost of light has fallen by several orders of magnitude, and its quality transformed from dirty, risky and dim to bright, clean and stable. That extraordinary transformation, mirrored in the development of many other products, serves to remind us of the profoundly great things of which humans are capable. As Faraday surmised, “Nothing is too wonderful to be true, if it be consistent with the laws of nature.”


This is a wonderfully optimistic tale and it is, of course, in all our best interests that new, promising technologies be encouraged to continue its trajectory. Governments and policy makers naturally wish to share in that optimism, but they must be very careful in what they mean by “encourage”.

Attractive though they may be, “pet” technologies backed by Governments introduce price distortions and destroy investment in the rest of the market, with potentially disastrous consequences. Governments historically have something of a knack for backing the wrong technological horse, but this instinct appears still to prevail in current thinking — most notably in energy policy and in the mandated ban on diesel and petrol engines in cars by the year 2040 in favour of electric motors.


Of course, it is not the ambition which is at fault. Our future energy policy needs to keep the lights on and quiet, clean (at the point of use) electric motors have the capacity to enhance the quality of life of those in urban areas in particular.


But Government must resist its instincts to compel and coerce new technologies lest its efforts backfire. So actively promoting a particular course so early risks entrenching an immature technology, to the potential detriment of better methods later on.


That potential is ably summed up in the latest chapter of the artificial light story. In 2007, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced that the UK would be doing away with incandescent lightbulbs in favour of “compact fluorescent” (CFL) bulbs by Government decree. This would, he promised “help tackle climate change, and also cut household bills”. A decade on, CFL bulbs — with their flickering light and short lifespan — are completely unwanted. The successor technology, the safer, more efficient LED bulbs, have rendered them obsolete.


In its irrepressible (if understandable) eagerness to “Do Good”, the Government backed a loser. In the case of the bulbs, the cost to the country was some £3 billion. In the case of other new technologies — from renewable energy to electric cars — the same mistakes would be must more damaging.


Instead, we need a composed, rational, evidence-based approach, allowing the market’s “invisible hand” to grasp and elevate those technologies most likely to improve quality of life in practice. That way lies the surest means of delivering stable, sustainable and affordable policy, and ensuring the lights that we have received from our forebears burn brighter for the generations that follow us.

Dr Robert Thomas is a scientist, writer and Executive Director of Accademia.

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