Florian Bay was former Chairman at University of Bath Conservative Society and is now a Nuclear Graduate at EDF Energy.

The study of history can more often than not provide another view of today’s events. It can also, more often than not, explain why certain paths were taken and not others. The contrasting routes taken by France and Britain during the nineteenth century offer an interesting insight into the role that energy played in shaping this contrast.

While during the course of the industrial revolution, Britain became the “workshop of the world” leading the world in the production of ships, machinery, spinned cotton and pig iron, France instead became, by the end of the 19th century, a “weakly industrialised, industrial country”, in the words François Caron, the French historian.

The causes of the different paths between the two nations are too numerous to cover in detail here, but the widespread availability of easily accessible coal resources stands out as a point of interest. While coal mining began during the Middles Ages in both countries, it is only with the advent of steam power and coke metallurgy that increasing demand led to the development of deeper mines and the associated very large increases in coal production.

Most of the demand for coal in Britain was met from domestic sources, with Tyneside and the Durham coalfield supplying millions of tons to London from coastal harbours specifically developed for coal exports, such as Hartlepool’s. The idespread availability of coking coal also spurred the developments of ironworks close to pitheads in Wales, Teesside and the Scottish Lowlands.

While development of domestic coal resources in France proceeded apace during the 19th century, beginning in central France and leading to the creation of new centres of industry such as Le Creusot, production never reached the same levels as Britain in the light of a dearth of coalfields comparable to the ones existing here. During the 19th century, France became for the first time in her history a net energy importer, with nearly a third of coal consumption met by imports.

Indeed, a significant proportion of the coal consumed in Paris was imported by sea, and then through the Seine River from Britain. Nevertheless, high transport costs for imported coal and limited domestic supplies meant that, in 1895, Coal was on average nearly twice as expensive in France as in Britain (11 Francs versus seven Francs per ton).

In an age in which most machinery was coal powered, high prices thus put a brake on French industrialisation, and spurred it to take a different direction. Indeed, water power remained widely used in France throughout the nineteenth century, with the invention of the first water turbine credited to Benoît Fourneyron. Hydropower, however, was not as versatile as coal power. Only the introduction of electrical generators was able to turn it into a highly efficient and versatile energy source.

The mountainous nature of France meant that, from the early 20th onwards, expensive coal could progressively be replaced by cheap hydroelectricity from the Alps or the Pyrenees, spurring the creation of new industries such as aluminium smelting, in which France briefly acquired a leadership position. Alpine hydroelectricity played a similar role in Italy, enabling the development of heavy industry in the Po Valley, and turning cities like Turin and Milan into industrial centres. The absence of a similar resource in southern Italy contributed further to its underdevelopment and the concomitant gap between northern and southern Italy.

While other factors like differing attitudes towards risk, different national frameworks for economic development and cultural barriers also provide reasons for the different paths taken by the French and British economies, the lack of coal resources meant that only the Pas de Calais region of France was able to undergo a process of industrial development similar to Britain, fuelled by its limited local reserves and easy imports from abroad. Despite the very large resources of iron ore in Lorraine, a lack of suitable supplies of coking coal led to significant delays in developing this resource.

It was not after the First World War and the arrival of Saar coal as war reparations that industrial development in the area really took off – a development further enhanced by the rise of the European Coal and Steel Community from the 1950s onwards. Difficulties in accessing cheap coal also retarded the development of French agriculture, with traction engines few and far between, and a widespread usage of horses well into the twentieth century, forcing more workers to remainson the farms and preventing a wholesale reallocation of manpower from agriculture to industry.

It was only the arrival of cheap oil from overseas and the development of nuclear energy that allowed France to transcend the limitations of geography and geology – indeed, the development of nuclear energy now allows France to boast the cheapest electricity in Europe. Globalised trade flows and the easy shipping of bulk materials by sea, allowed for past differences resulting from geography or geology to be nearly but not completely ironed out.

Looking further afield, the availability of cheap energy through the massive expansion of shale gas production is one of the reasons the United States is currently experiencing an industrial renaissance of sorts. Meanwhile, in Britain, high electricity prices are an important reason behind the closure of the Lynemouth and Anglesey aluminium smelters over the last few years. Any kind of economic rebalancing in favour of manufacturing and industry in Britain will have to rely on cheap and abundant sources of energy. It would consequently be a waste not to use the abundant sources of shale gas and likely shale oil that are available in this country. Like the coal that powered the industrial revolution, this gas could be the fuel behind a British industrial renaissance.

28 comments for: Florian Bay: Coal gave us an advantage over France. Shale could do the same today.

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