Tag Archives: National Grid

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.

 

A Call For Memories

As part of The Power and The Water Project (http://powerwaterproject.net) I am based at the University of East Anglia, and am looking at the creation and development of the Electricity National Grid from Its introduction in discrete towns and cities by entrepreneurial individuals through to the huge infrastructure that supplies our electricity today.

One of the areas I would like to investigate is the effect this had on individual people, families and communities. For example Godalming in Surrey was the first place in Britain to have street lighting powered by electricity. In a letter written to his local paper in 1953 a Mr George S. Tanner recalls his memories as a 12 year old boy;

lamp“The lamps were much as they are now but slipped into two brass slides like an inverted letter U. In those days we boys often had magnets to play with and the similarity intrigued me, so one day in our showroom when no one was about I took a needle to see if the electricity would act as a magnet and held it across the base of these two slides. The needle vanished and on my finger and thumb were deep white hollows where the needle had been. It had instantly fused. This was never done again as you can imagine.”

He goes on to recall;

powerlines“The wires were not insulated then. The dynamos were at Pullman’s Mill and the river gave the power so the wires were brought overhead from there along the bottom of the Vicarage garden. At that time the wooden bridge was out of repair. The present brick bridge (which I remember being built) had taken its use and so it had decayed and become fenced in with a closed fence and the wires were carried along overhead of this, not very high up. There was opposition as you can guess to anything new and the story goes that two men with their cargo of beer came along one night and one lifted the other up to tear the wires down. But when he grasped them the current imprisoned both.”

“The story goes that old Mr Bridger who at one time was Mayor (or several times so) had shares in the Gas Company. He, it is said, liked his liquid nourishment. The arc standard by the Market House was loose and one night he was ‘out to get one back’ for the Gas Company and so embraced it and shook it and was heard muttering, “B- b- b- ‘lectric light!””

He finishes his letter by saying;

“I do not suppose all this has much value for your information, but now on the edge of 86 I feel that these little memories should be passed on.”

factoryAnd that is where I would like your help. It is important to understand what happened in areas and individual premises where electricity was introduced. Other stories I have heard include a man found bouncing on his bed whilst trying to blow the electric light out and children being bathed in milk pasteurising containers because they were electrically heated but the farmer didn’t trust electricity enough to have it in the house.

Understanding how electricity was both perceived and received by people is important not just for posterity and historical records but also to develop ways of integrating new technologies into everyday life and to understand how better to disseminate information regarding their introduction, use and potential.

Brain/ideaI would be very grateful if anyone has any stories or memories they would share with me. The people involved can remain anonymous or if they wish can have their name associated with their comments in any published articles (in which case could they add their name, and place of residence as they would wish to have it published).

You can contact me through any of these methods. Thank you for any hep you can give to me.

Email: K.Button@uea.ac.uk

visit the web pages: http://powerwaterproject.net/

 

Postal Address: Electricity Memories,

Kayt Button

School of History

Faculty of Arts and Humanities,

University of East Anglia

Norwich

NR4 7TJ