The UK National Grid: Environmental Impacts, Consequences and Connectivity

A poster presented at the 2nd World Congress of Environmental History, Guimarães, Portugal,  July 2014


By Kayt Button

The national Grid in the UK is essentially the transmission system for electricity in the UK. It was built between 1926 and 1933 to scale up the electricity supply of the United Kingdom from small local suppliers providing different frequency and voltage power for a few customers, to an integrated, unified system for all. In order to address the environmental impacts of the national grid both then and now, we need to address the extraction of the fuel, electricity generation, transmission and the usage by the consumer.

Initially 98% of the electricity generation was from the coal which had to be mined leaving scars on the landscape. Additional impacts were felt over the UK on landscape which accommodates the vast number of pylons and miles of overhead cables. Other effects were on the rivers, water from which was used to cool the power generating stations. This resulted in heating the water courses changing habitats for the flora and fauna within them. Air quality was also affected, dirt particles, carbon dioxide, sulphurous gasses, water vapours and heat all being pumped into the atmosphere. Over time as the grid has developed, new fuels have been used and the electricity industry has gone through nationalisation, privatisation and numerous parliamentary acts and regulatory bodies, and environmental issues have been addressed in different ways with varying levels of success.

Whilst the grid was designed to join everything together giving access to cheap electricity for everyone as the benefits of “economy of scale” were to be realised. The grid is so integrated and accepted that it has almost become invisible. Few people know what fuel is used to create their electricity, or where it comes from, so the environmental impacts of this seem abstract despite using electricity every day. The questions this raises are whether we are actually less connected to our energy supply despite the integrated infrastructure and how this affects our relationship to energy, infrastructure and environment.