Infrastructure, energy systems and connections between energy sectors and sites of generation, transmission and consumption

Strand leader: Paul Warde

Shifts in the primary sources of energy supply have been a major element in societal restructuring and the evolution of a modern, industrialized world, superseding the ‘organic economy’, where energy supply and consumption was necessarily local, and limited by natural processes. The long shift over to fossil fuels demanded an infrastructure of railways, roads, wires and pipelines, overcoming constraints posed by topography, weather, space and locally available power supplies. Based on the most integrated and internationalized of all infrastructural networks, electricity has transformed our relationships to light, the industrial workplace, domestic tasks, communications and IT. These changes have locked us into increasingly large-scale networks, yet have also had a distancing effect. Newly identified consequences of our energy regime – climate change and desirability of de-carbonization – raise questions not just about forms of generation, but the organization of everyday lives.


Project 1: The National Grid: An Environmental History (Kayt Button)


400kV pylon , Cheshire, England. Part of the National Grid. Source: Wikipedia

This project examines what is arguably Britain’s largest ever infrastructure project,the development of the national grid, in the context of wider debates about energy supply and societal modernity, while also contextualizing them within a long history of urbanization, industrialization and the assemblage of a supporting infrastructure. It builds on pioneering studies by Luckin (Questions of Power, 1990) and Sheail (Power in Trust, 1991) while developing a long temporal span and thematic coverage. The grid transformed the efficiency of power use in Britain and the capacity for a broad electrification of society. It touched people’s lives in the intimacy of their homes, the cheaper and greater availability of electricity to workplaces, the shift from local suppliers to national co-ordination, its consequences for pollution and safety, its visual impact on the rural and urban landscapes, and an unparalleled and rapid intrusion on property rights. How was this visualized, designed, and implemented? How did people and communities react to the expansion and imposition of national infrastructure, concerns about health and safety, or the association of electricity with improved lives, modernity, national advance, and competitiveness? How was the new networked world perceived to shift relations of economic and social power, opportunities for personal or community empowerment and development, and connections with extra-local places and governance? Equally, once the grid became familiar and everyday in its environmental impact and provision of services, how were alterations to the system, changing power sources and risks understood and developed? How does the grid’s almost century-long history illuminate contemporary needs to reshape networks of electricity provision in the light of new technology and demand for renewable generation? This project links especially with issues raised by the Severn Barrage, and all primary research questions, but particularly the fourth.


Project 2 Somerset’s Energy Environment: Aesthetics, Sustainability and Evidence for Common Ground (Jill Payne)

Hinkley Point power stations

Hinkley Point nuclear power stations A and B. Source: Wikimedia Commons

This project considers attitudes to energy development in Somerset since 1919, with particular reference to the nuclear developments A (1957), B (1967) and, potentially, C at Hinkley Point on the Bristol Channel, alongside the disputed wind turbine at Huntspill and long-distance pylon schemes. Reactions to these schemes – Hinkley lies just north of the Quantocks AONB – are significant in terms of their potential to highlight over the longer term differences and similarities between UK conservation/amenity and environmental perspectives regarding various energy production and transmission forms, and the extent to which objections are grounded in specific landscape location.

Arriving at a consensus on sites for energy production and transmission has been a particular challenge for the UK, where constraints of high population density are compounded by a strong sense of heritage intimately linked to landscapes appreciated as much for their socio-cultural connotations and visual attributes as for their biodiversity. Energy installations, as key drivers of industrialization, therefore, tend to sit uncomfortably with UK landscape ideals. Civil nuclear power has been perhaps the most controversial source of energy since 1945, in terms of the risks inherent in the technology and potential public exposure to unseen radioactivity; and the necessary concentration of stations on large sites with specific environmental requirements (above all, access to cooling water). Nuclear plants have become related not just to local impacts but to a complicated sense of national mission (defence, national prestige, cheap and ‘clean’ power), and international concern (radioactive contamination within and across borders, disarmament, trans-boundary environmental protection, suspicion of subsidy and centralized energy systems). Contested proposals past and present have been thrown into even sharper relief by two new shifts in focus: the concept of nuclear as a ‘green’ alternative to fossil fuels, and proposals for induced hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to release gas in Somerset’s Mendip Hills AONB.

This county-based study will analyze a century of attitudinal shifts toward land use in environments of high socio-cultural significance; map the relative significance of aesthetic and environmental impacts on the landscape; and will seek to identify areas of commonality and thus potential consensus, between aesthetic considerations and sustainability interests concerning ongoing UK energy production.