Tag Archives: Kayt Button

Podcast: The UK National Grid: history of an energy landscape and its impacts

We take electricity for granted and do not think of where it comes from when we switch on a light or use an electrical appliance. But behind the electricity coming out of a wall socket lays an entire energy landscape of poles, wires, electrical substations and power stations. It is imposed on the landscape like a gigantic web, a grid that has become almost part of the natural scenery.

Just over a century ago this electricity grid did not exist. Power generation was local or at best regional and often based on the burning of coal or the use of locally produced gas. In less than a century the grid covered the entire United Kingdom and many other countries. It revolutionised our lives, the way we worked and it made air in cities a whole lot cleaner. But how did the development of this energy landscape impact on the landscape and environment? What were the social and economic consequences of the expansion of the grid?

This history is now researched by Cambridge based PhD candidate Kayt Button. Her project is part of the British Arts and Humanities Research Council funded environmental history initiative “The Power and the Water: Connecting Pasts with Futures”, that focuses on environmental connectivities that have emerged in Britain since industrialisation. Episode 66 of the Exploring Environmental History podcast features Kayt’s work and discusses the development of the UK National Grid, and how it changed people’s lives, its environmental impacts and how the past informs the future development of the grid.

Web resources
Exeter Memories: Electricity Generation in Exeter
South Western Electricity Historical Society
UK National Grid at 75

Music credits
Dance of the Pixels” by Doxent Zsigmond, available from ccMixter
Snowdaze” by Jeris, available from ccMixter


Watch the video visualisation of the introduction of the podcast:


Exploring environmental History podcast


This podcast was simultaneously published on the Environmental History Resources website as part of the Exploring Environmental History podcast series.

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.


The Port of Tyne – Coals to Newcastle!

By Kayt Button

I used to have a coal fired Rayburn which I had to continually feed logs and coal to keep my house warm and my water hot. This meant going through perhaps three 25kg bags of coal and a couple of baskets of large logs in a week. And I was just one of the 26.4 million households in the UK (according to the Office for National Statistics). Not all of these households use electricity to provide heating and hot water, but very nearly all of them use electricity. The multiplication of say just 30kg of coal per household would mean the need for 792,000 tonnes of coal per week!

It isn’t just the volume of coal; it’s the need to keep the fire going continually, which means having a constant stream of fuel because electricity cannot be stored.. Whilst today electricity is generated from coal, hydropower, nuclear fuels and a whole host of renewables there is a need to constantly keep generating the power. This supply has to meet the demand however varied that is over the day and the year.. When the national grid was built between 1926 and 1933 nearly all electricity was produced from coal fired power stations.

Dunston Staiths

The Dunston Staithes. Trains would travel to the end of the staithe and pour coal into the ships waiting to transport it out to power stations and other consumers. Photo: M. Dudley

In years gone by Newcastle would have been exporting coal, filling vast ships which would deliver the coal to power stations round the UK and abroad. Loading and unloading ships required man power and was a physical and dangerous occupation for which you had to provide your own spade, and sometimes candles, to shovel the coal flat as it was dropped to the ships to get as much as possible on board.

Today, after the closure of the mining industry in the north-east, the process runs in reverse. The Port of Tyne receives coal from huge ships with massive cranes unloading the coal from the ships. Large vehicles scrape up the last layers inside the ship hold which the cranes cannot reach. Long freight trains line up to take the coal from the port to power stations to maintain constant power generation.

Coal piled on the quayside from the ship to move to storage yards. Photo: Kayt Button

Coal piled on the quayside from the ship to move to storage yards.
Photo: Kayt Button

The logistical operation to keep coal flowing to power stations today is vast. Watching the volumes of coal being unloaded, the mountains of it in storage, and the huge machinery to move it from storage to train helps to understand how much natural resource we are using in our everyday lives. As the piles of coal begin to be transported from quayside to the storage yards, another ship will moor up and everything continues as it is a 24 hour operation.

Craines unloading coal

Unloading the coal ship with cranes.
Photo: Kayt Button

Turning on the light switch, the increasing numbers of electrical gadgets, and technology driving a demand for increased power removes us from the reality of what it takes to produce it; we no longer have to put any effort or even thought into the process. But someone, somewhere is doing the work.

The Port of Tyne is an

Loading trains with coal. Photo: Kayt Button

Loading trains with coal.
Photo: Kayt Button

exciting, busy, industrious place with 600 acres of land surrounding the River Tyne with both import, and, some export companies. At the height of shipping on the Tyne 1 in 6 of every ship launched in the world was in Newcastle. Visiting the port gives an indication of what a vibrant, busy and industrious place it would have been. There would have been merchants and sailors from round the world, goods piled high on the quayside and so many people, and carts and horses in order to get goods to and from the docks. There would have been a great ship building yards and all the workers that would have employed too. Although not as busy, and with tractors, cranes and scrapers the port is still a vibrant place, which is expanding and diversifying, and still supporting imports and exports and it was a privilege to be there. Find out more at http://www.portoftyne.co.uk/

A visit to the South Western Electrical Historical Society

By Kayt Button

The changes brought about by the introduction of electricity over the past hundred and fifty years or so or have totally transformed our everyday lives. From the homes we live in, appliances we use, our systems of communication, and types and methods of working.

Housing of the South Western Electrical Historical Society

Housing of the South Western Electrical Historical Society in an electricity sub-station (Photo: Kayt Button)

After a series of scientific discoveries from the late 1700’s through the first part of the 1800’s supplying electricity commercially began as an entrepreneurial venture for the scientifically forward thinking. Investing in electricity generation through steam engines or other power sources and profit on their investments by charging local people for electric lighting, and later, supply of electrical power. In my quest to find out as much about the early history of electricity from the 1850’s onwards, I came across the South Western Electrical Historical Society. After some communication with Peter Lamb, the society secretary, I visited the museum.

Exposition space

Exposition space of the the South Western Electrical Historical Society (Photo: Kayt Button)

The museum is located in an unused part of an electricity substation, courtesy of Western Power Distribution. The museum contains an exhibition room, where artefacts are displayed, a meeting room, two archive rooms and an office. The exhibition room contains may artefacts described as “What your Grandparents Used”. The room is crammed full of all types of appliances and equipment and although I could have spent a good few hours just browsing and taking in the written information, I wanted to look at the archive material.

I had already read a great write up on the early days of power in the south west, by Peter Lamb and after seeing how much written material there was at the society, alongside the wealth of knowledge of the people there I was thrilled. There are already a large number of individual town histories researched and recorded for the South West of England, as well as the supporting documentation for them. Alongside this I discovered Garke’s Manuals of electricity which document everything that occurred in the electrical industry at the time. With adverts and sponsorship, it is a series of books I am looking forward to investigating further alongside the many other documents and maps available at the museum.

Finding a group of such knowledge people has been a real pleasure, and not just because of a very delicious lasagne pub lunch! I am looking to work further with everyone at the museum to use the South West of England as a case study looking at the changes to electrical power over the past century and a half. Their website address is www.swehs.co.uk to find out more about them.