“Our country’s independence and economy has a Damocles sword constantly hanging over it”. This formulation was used by a Swedish parliamentarian in the year 1900 referring to Sweden’s dependency on coal import. The vulnerability this implied had become manifest in previous months, when coal prices had increased significantly following a major strike in British coal mines. And as coal provided almost half of total energy supply this price increase had a huge impact on the Swedish economy at large.
Until the mid-19th century, Sweden had been almost self-sufficient in energy supply. In the mid-19th century a growing number of steam engines were installed in industries, trains, steamboats and urban gasworks were established in cities and towns. This created a growing demand for coal. In spite of ambitious coal prospecting and exploration in parts of the country, very few deposits were discovered, and Sweden started importing coal mainly from Great Britain. The organization of the industry became very fragmented. In the 1930s there were no less than 40 wholesale dealers and more than 5000 retailers on the Swedish coal and cokes market.
In my paper I will study how the fear of coal shortage spurred developments of domestic energy sources before WWI and during the interwar years. Moreover, I will study how Swedish public and private actors coped with the actual coal shortages during the two world wars, focusing both on the large scale substitution of coal and coke with wood and peat and on negotiations with potential exporters. In both wars the state intervened very strongly in the fuel market with rationing of sales and large scale stock piling. During WWII Nazi Germany became Sweden’s main coal supplier and increased its export substantially, when imports from Britain had been cut off. In return Sweden increased its export of iron ore in proportion.
Bi-Annual Conference of the European Society for Environmental History, LMU Munich, August 21-24