STICK’s online Spring 2021 event and AGM fell on 22nd April, also International Earth Day. Focussing on the themes of the future of heritage combustion engines and green initiatives, the event explored justifying, offsetting or sustainably running engines, navigating new climate regulations at local and national levels, funding partnerships, and the future of running heritage engines.

Burning Issues: The Future of Fossil Fuels in Heritage

The Scottish Transport & Industry Collections Knowledge Network (STICK) holds two meetings per year. STICK’s online Spring 2021 event and AGM fell on 22nd April, also International Earth Day and in the year of COP26. Focussing on the themes of the future of heritage combustion engines and green initiatives, the event explored justifying, offsetting or sustainably running engines, navigating new climate regulations at local and national levels, funding partnerships, and the future of running heritage engines. The power points and some related resources are presented at the bottom of this page.

As we navigate the climate emergency organisations seek to minimise emissions and reduce resource consumption – but where does that leave heritage organisations that run historic engines on fossil fuels? How can we justify or offset these emissions and what does the future look like for our historic engines with increasingly sustainability-focussed funders?  What is the role of industrial museums and collections in STEM and environmental education and how might learning outcomes balance emissions?

Paul Semple, general manager and CEO of Waverley Excursions, gave a talk Fuelling Paddle Steamer Waverley” where he outlined the history of fuels burned and conversion of PS Waverley from heavy fuel oil to marine gas oil in 2018, and highlighted that Waverley is subject to statutory requirements for clean fuels and emissions. Operating 110 days a season, carrying 100,000 passengers, and consuming 750 litres of fuel an hour, Waverley fuel costs were £400,000 in 2018. Waverley is one of the largest heritage consumers of carbon emitting fuels in Scotland and as such is subject to fluctuating fuel prices that can vary dramatically week to week and fuel efficiency is essential to keeping operating costs manageable. Waverley’s new boilers are more efficient than their predecessors, but with the need to keeping Waverley Excursions operating to safeguard the future of the vessel the reboilering had to be done quickly as possible with the new boilers being more efficient versions of the old ones. 

Craig Sinclair in “Using the energy of the past to learn about the energy of the future”spoke about the Powering Up initiative which was a renewable outreach education programme run by National Museums Scotland and Scottish industrial museums, and so introduced one of the main themes of the conference: using the museum collections to educate the next generation on the history of energy production, and to make accessible concepts of renewable energy, and that different sources of energy were appropriate for different periods of time and purposes. 

Heather Davies and Philip Butler from Lancashire County Council in their Steam Driven Cotton” talk gave organisational and contextual background in maintaining heritage attractions with special reference to textile mills, the closure of Lancashire Council’s museums in 2015, and the subsequent surge of public support. Heather raised the concern of councils to offset their carbon emissions while recognising that steam power is a vital unique selling point of their own attractions. Philip highlighted the issues that arise from environmental officers and boiler inspectors having their own interpretations of guidance and regulation that can create moving goalposts for heritage organisations. Justifying carbon emissions to the local authority is through access and education opportunities, as well as offsetting the fuels burned in a circular economy.

Steve Oates, Chief Executive of the Heritage Railway Association explained the current context of coal consumption in UK heritage railways and the 26,000 tonnes of coal they burn per year, with focus on the work on advocacy, partnership and communication undertaken by the HRA and a summary of the current legal status of burning coal in heritage environments. With the likely winding down of UK-sourced coal by 2022, heritage organisations must investigate importing coal or alternative solid fuels. Steve pointed out that children today may not understand or care about the history of coal and the environmentalist push against mined coal may lead to having to use alternative solid fuels such as 100% torrefied fuel. Heritage steam must emphasise working together to establish its educational and economic benefits to justify their emissions and lobby.

Becky Peacock, Director of the Museum of Scottish Railways discussed the optics and image of heritage steam and how to have the awkward conversations around fossil fuels in heritage, as well as the role of heritage vehicles in educating the public and preserving skills. Bo’ness and Kinneil Railway is also looking to improve efficiency and reduce emissions in their engines as well as how to offset the organisation’s carbon emissions as a whole. Railways also provide strips of habitat on the banks of the line which are important natural habitats and corridors.  Using the example of the Canal and River Trust, Becky emphasised the value of balancing arguments – the maintenance of historic fabric and landscapes undertaken by organisations that run carbon-emitting engines.

Victoria Robb is Learning Manager at the National Mining Museum Scotland. Although not burning or mining coal, the National Mining Museum of Scotland has embedded advocacy, energy efficiency and education all aligned with climate change and environmental responsibility, and so relevant to the Scottish curriculum for school learners. The Museum’s formal education programme explores energy, climate and environment addressing the curriculum through the Museum’s own collections to encourage discussion and debate. The broad learning programme at the Museum uses the legacy of fossil fuels rather than shying away from it, encouraging interpretation, understanding and thereby appreciation for a history that would otherwise seem irrelevant to the next generation.

Jim Mitchell, Director at Industrial Heritage Consulting and Director of Engineering at the Maid of the Loch, delivered his talk “Smoke on the Water” in which he noted the challenges arising from increased awareness and visibility of harmful combustion emissions – how can Maid of the Loch justify its emissions? Is her rarity and importance enough? Jim noted that the argument that “everyone else is doing it” and the slight contribution of the Maid overall is not sufficient, so the Maid must move to actively offset her emissions as a stop-gap, although he also noted that carbon offsetting is not a ‘get out of jail free’ card, so heritage operators must do what they can – and that is to test-bed new technology and demonstrate proactivity and willingness. Community carbon-offsetting, i.e. planting trees locally, is also preferable to handing over cash to offsetting organisations. The Maid’s original steam plant has been tweaked with improvements, enhancements and energy capture to improve sustainability. Heritage organisation must be ahead of the game in terms of carbon emissions to keep themselves appealing to external funders.

A healthy discussion followed with the panel joined by Peter Ovenstone (Fedecrail and Europa Nostra) in raising three key themes drawn from the above talks: Education, collaboration, and mitigation. The broad consensus was that it is not enough to preserve historic engines for their own sake, their use, especially with the associated emissions, must be justified.

As burning emission-generating fuels becomes more contentious, heritage organisations must look to balance the minimal use of coal by heritage organisations with their economic and educational benefits. Audiences must be educated to mitigate the highly emotional reactions to controlled and offset carbon fuel use, but audiences themselves are also changing – the audience nostalgic for heritage engines is disappearing and emerging audiences will not have the same emotional attachment, it is these audiences who are now holding heritage organisations to higher standards with regards to emissions.

There was a wider call for unity across all organisations that run heritage engines, to overcome the demarcation between museums, commercial heritage operators, enthusiasts and others who have traditionally operated in separate spheres. There is the need for coordination by heritage engine operators to lobby the UK government to ensure they receive the necessary support and advice, and where relevant, allowances in forthcoming legislation.

Historic engines were often adapted for new or modified fuels during their working lives, and the panel discussed the ethics of modifying historic engines to use new low emission technologies. It was pointed out that in principle this was a sound idea, but the collections care requirements placed on accredited museums prevents them from doing this, and there’s no guarantee that modifications made will still be acceptable in 5 to 10 years. An alternative is to commission and build engines that use these new technologies to demonstrate the mechanical principles, to replace steam generating plant where separate from the main engine, and plan for a worst-case future where the burning of carbon emitting fuels is banned outright and hope for one where allowances are made. The panel were also invited to consider Accreditation where possible as an advantage rather than a hindrance: Peter Ovenstone raised the point that heritage organisations should consider themselves as custodians of that heritage as opposed to simply ‘theme park attractions’ to ensure that external bodies such as the UK Government make efforts to accommodate and support engine operators beyond what they would for a simple commercial venture.

Victoria Robb summarised much of the discussion by saying that mitigation and justification through education can’t be isolated – it must be a holistic approach from an organisation that is in all aspects green and carbon conscious.

Matthew Bellhouse Moran, Chair,

Scottish Transport & Industry Collections Knowledge Network

0:0:00 Welcome and Housekeeping

0:07:15 Fuelling Paddle Steamer Waverley by Paul Semple, General Manager at Waverley Excursions

0:26:50 Using energy of the past to learn about energy of the future by Craig Sinclair, Freelance Science Communicator

0:46:30 Steam Driven Cotton by Heather Davis, Conservation & Collections Manager, and Philip Butler, Curator of Industry & Technology, at Lancashire Country Council

1:14:19 Securing future coal supplies for heritage steam by Steve Oates, CEO at Heritage Railway Association

1:37:10 Is it that bad? Where are we in the climate conversation and what do we see as our role? by Dr Becky Peacock, Museum Director at Museum of Scottish Railways

1:55:45 Fuelling the Future by Victoria Robb, Education Manager at National Mining Museum Scotland

2:10:51 Smoke on the Water by Jim Mitchell, Director at Industrial Heritage Consulting

2:25:28 Panel discussion and Q&A

3:21:05 STICK Annual General Meeting 2021. The notice for the AGM and the AGM papers can be found here.


* Many thanks to the author for passing these on. He notes that should anyone wish to republish the articles for public consumption, you must get permission from Bauer Media.