History of the Electricity Supply in the UK

Ken Lane – 18th September 2007

Before Alessandra Volta invented the Voltaic Pile in 1800 the only source of electricity available to scientists had been static electricity produced from friction machines.

Early in the 19th century a number of scientists established the connection between magnetism and electricity and that magnetism could be produced from electricity. Michael Faraday set out to show that electricity could be produced from magnetism and his original experiment is the principle used in all modem power stations today. Of all the discoveries made in the 19th century the conversion of mechanical energy into electrical power was probably the greatest.

Following the development of the carbon filament lamp by Joseph Swan and Thomas Edison in 1879 the industry was ready to take off and the worlds first power station was opened at Godalming in Surrey in 1881. The development of the 132kV National Grid in the early 1930’s reduced costs and improved reliability.

Nationalisation of the industry in 1948 enabled a programme of rural electrification to proceed more quickly and standardisation of electricity supplies to be implemented. A dramatic increase in load growth during the 1950’s and 60’s brought about the need for the 400kV Supergrid.

In 1950 coal accounted for 90% of the primary fuel used in generation but this has now declined to about 33% with natural gas now accounting for nearly 40% and nuclear power about 20%.

In France 80% of electricity is generated from nuclear power and the cross channel link with a capacity of 2000MW provides about 4% of the U.K. ‘s electricity requirements. Following privatisation of the industry in 1990 most of the country’s Regional Electricity Companies have now been taken over by foreign companies.

K Lane