Back to News & Media

Lessons on climate action from the Rural Electrification scheme

Opinion: Implementing the Climate Action Plan will require a level of engagement and transformation last seen when electricity came to rural Ireland 

  • Dr Fionn Rogan, MaREI Research Centre for Energy, Climate and Marine

Switching on an electric light for the first time was an unprecedented change for a generation of people in rural Ireland in the 1940s and 1950s. Each household had to be persuaded by the ESB to pay a usage and regular flat fee ("the ground rent"). They had to allow new technology (poles, wires, a meter, fuse-boxes, sockets) into their homes and they had to accept a strange new service ("the electric") that few understood and many feared. For the next generation that grew up with electricity, it was the most normal thing in the world.

The Rural Electrification Scheme brought electricity to 1.75 million people in Ireland that had no access to modern energy services until then. It was an enormous logistical, capital, technological and cultural project that transformed the Irish countryside. From 1946 to 1965, an entire generation were introduced to the electric light, kettle, iron, washing machine, refrigerator, and electric radio, to name just a few of the new appliances.

While the change took roughly one generation, a more interesting question than "how many generations did it take to change?" is "how did the generations make the change?" Each connected household decided to do so themselves. From the vantage point of today, adopting electricity might seem inevitable or a no-brainer, but each household changed for their own reasons. Understanding the reasons people had for changing will help us understand the reasons people now have for changing - or not – to a new energy system.

Recently, the Irish government launched their Climate Action Plan to Tackle Climate Breakdown with a goal of a "net zero carbon energy system" by 2050. Achieving this "transformational shift of our economies and societies" will require "every community, every workplace and every farm" to be involved. How did a previous "transformational shift" of rural Ireland engage with "every community, every workplace and every farm"?

In his book Diffusion of Innovations, American theorist and sociologist Everett Rogers describes the many reasons that individuals and societies have for accepting or rejecting change ("innovations"). He lists five attributes of innovations which can explain much of the observed variation: relative advantage, compatibility, complexity, trialability, and observability. Let's look at three of these attributes.

Relative advantage is the degree to which an innovation is perceived as being better than the idea it replaces and is usually evaluated in terms of cost or service. For the Rural Electrification Scheme, a majority of the households farmed. For commercial farmers, electricity could easily improve their productivity therefore the increased cost could be accommodated. But for the majority subsistence farmers, no regular income meant real affordability challenges, especially when so much of the cost was a fixed charge.

However, the relative advantage from the range of services electricity offered was hard to beat: light an outdoor yard, pump water, incubate chickens, even keep the Sacred Heart lamp on all day! Getting electricity could also boost status. Bachelor farmers who were slow to connect often reconsidered when they were asked at a local dance whether they had "the electricity".

Compatibility is the degree to which an innovation is consistent with existing values, past experiences, and needs of potential adopters. Electricity was disruptive to the old ways of life. Compared to the low glow of candles, bright electric lights were hard on people’s eyes and made many feel unwell. Some were convinced the bright light was extinguishing their fire. Many housewives were unhappy with how the new light revealed the previously hidden cobwebs in their homes.

To mitigate this, one ESB engineer first provided 60-watt bulbs before offering 100-watt bulb to make the change less disorienting. Other practices that smoothed the way was the blessing of the local clergy, which reassured many who were concerned about the impact on old traditions. The blessing – in a literal sense - of the clergy sometimes had unintended consequences, as one engineer recalled the metal-clad switch in a town hall that was "liberally bespattered with rust spots from frequent former applications of Holy Water".

Complexity is the degree to which an innovation is perceived as difficult to understand and use. This was a challenge for electricity, which was rarely understood and often feared. A man in Monaghan was initially fascinated by an electric kettle at his sister’s home, but declined the tea fearing it had been electrified and his sister had to make fresh tea on a turf fire. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s many excellent information pamphlets were published by the Rural Electrification Office (REO) in Dublin and distributed by the 792 Local Area Offices around the country, which were also aided by many local voluntary organisations such as Muintir na TíreMacra na FeirmeMacra na Tuaithe and the Irish Countrywomen's Association.

What can this teach us about transitioning to a "net zero carbon energy system"? The relative advantage of zero carbon energy will be assessed in part by cost but the cost equation could go either way, depending on the method of calculation (which costs are included, length of payback period, etc.) or level of subsidy (on fossil fuels or renewables). However, it’s not only about cost. The nature of the service matters too, as well as the status it can bestow. Will prospective suitors one day be asked whether they have "the electric car"?

To date, the most successful decarbonisation measures have been the most compatible with the existing energy system. For example, the Biofuels Obligation Scheme, which blends 11% biofuels into petrol and diesel, is unknown to most motorists but has been one of the most successful transport decarbonisation policy-measures. However, a zero carbon energy system will require going beyond compatible policy-measures. For example, continued growth in private cars (electric or autonomous) will only worsen traffic congestion, commuting times and urban sprawl. A large-scale shift to public transport would mitigate these ills and contribute to decarbonisation. A zero carbon energy system will bring many blessings.

To make all homes warm and energy efficient, retrofitting is an excellent solution; however, it’s complex to implement. Each house is unique, so a bespoke retrofit has to be designed, the process is disruptive, upfront costs are high, and a high skill level for installation is required. However, the Rural Electrification Scheme shows that with excellent information provision and a large well-trained critical mass of people, it can be done.

From RTE Brainstorm