On Wednesday the Chancellor announced that “Millions of households will get more support with high energy bills to help ease the cost of living” by extending the Energy Price Guarantee for a further three months. The affordability of power to people’s homes and industry has been in the turbulent eye of political confrontation since the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year and resultant soaring of energy costs. Last summer Sir Keir Starmer pressed the government with a plan to deal with the “national emergency” of spiralling energy costs which was “robust” and a “real answer” to soaring household bills. Concern was focused on the increase in ‘Energy Poverty’ which occurs when energy bills represent a high percentage of consumers’ income, or when they must reduce their household’s energy consumption to a degree that negatively impacts their health and well-being. The Energy Price Guarantee was eventually created to cap domestic power costs during winter.
Availability of affordable power to people’s homes is now accepted as a citizen’s right. However, the history of the technology and systems which has generated this expectation is long and intriguing. Benjamin Franklin is famously credited with the ‘discovery’ of electricity by flying a kite into a thunderstorm in 1752, but it was not until 1831 that Michael Faraday discovered the operating principle of electromagnetic generators, leading the way to the modern electrical era. In 1878 local hero Lord Armstrong trail-blazed hydro-electric generation at Cragside, then in 1882 the first coal-fired power station, the Edison Electric Light Station, was built in London with the promise of supplying light and warmth to London homes.
Against this background, and on the same day as the Chancellor’s announcement, the Northumberland and Newcastle Society held timely presentations in Neville Hall, Newcastle, entitled: ‘Power In North East England: The Birth and Growth of National Electricity Supply’. The event comprised two lectures. The first by Tom McGovern of Newcastle University Business School describing his research work on the early days of the electricity supply industry in the North East and the personalities involved, and the second by Tony Quinn, Director of Technology Development at the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult in Blyth, Northumberland describing changes in the industry from the late 1950s to the ‘greening’ of the industry in the final years of the 20th century.
History of the society
The society was started in Newcastle in 1924 by a group of well-connected enthusiasts with leading citizens at its helm. The aim of this new civic society was ‘to promote a wider concern for the beauty, historical interest, amenity, healthfulness and development of the city’ with the motto ‘Pulchra Petendo Consequemer’ or, loosely speaking, ‘Beauty only comes with effort.’ It expanded to include Northumberland in 1928 when members decided to oppose a scheme for overhead distribution of electricity in Rothbury. The Society was represented at the Commission of Enquiry, and took an active part in pressing for cables to be laid underground – an early thread linking it directly to the theme of Wednesday’s event. The society prides itself that “Today, there is probably no other amenity group in Britain which can claim to concern itself with both an historic regional industrial capital like Newcastle, and a huge county of unsurpassed beauty, which stretches from the Tyne to the Tweed.”
Early days of the industry and personalities in the North East
Tom McGovern described his research work on the early days of the electricity supply industry in the North East and the personalities involved such as Robert Spence-Watson, JT Merz and Charles Parsons and Alphonse Reyrolle. Merz and Spence-Watson were Quakers and philanthropists, Watson was a supporter of the Labour Movement. These beginnings were exciting and chaotic with competing ideas on technical standards and commercial development. Competition raged over whether to use alternating current (AC) or direct current (DC) distribution systems (sometimes called the battle, or war, of the currents). The North East pioneers were very much in the forefront of these developments and exchanged ideas with the likes of Siemens, Brown and Boveri in Europe, and Edison in US.
There was initial competition between gas and electricity. Local authorities had a vested interest in gas and a reluctance to change; they later interfered with rights to supply particular areas.
In 1900 several Acts of Parliament were passed, granting rights to power companies in perpetuity to supply electricity to authorised undertakings, and also for industrial and manufacturing purposes. In 1926, the Central Electricity Board was created to concentrate the generation of electricity in a limited number of power stations. The North Eastern Electricity Board (NEEB) was formed in 1948 as part of the nationalisation of the electricity industry by the Electricity Act 1947. For the next 40 years NEEB would supply electricity to consumers from Berwick to York.
Powering up, then greening electricity production
Tony Quinn described the introduction of huge coal-fired power stations in the late 1950s through to the 1970s, and the subsequent rapid decline in use of coal that occurred during the Thatcher era. In the 1980s the industry was privatised and broken-up into separate companies with multi-national ownership and so-called competition in a market economy. The use of cheap and quick-to-build new gas-fired power stations instead of coal did reduce emissions, but resulted in a dangerous dependence on gas supplies from abroad, especially from Russia – with the major consequences seen today.
He concluded by outlining the ‘greening’ of this industry in the final years of the 20th century and the establishment of three cardinal objectives it was to strive to follow: affordability in unit cost; reliability in continuous supply; and low environmental impact. He made the case for the accelerated development of off-shore wind power as a major contribution to solving the problems created by Britain’s ever-increasing need for electricity. Solar power is advancing on a more local basis and hydrogen technologies are still in their infancy. Wind power is by far the fastest growing source of electricity generation in the UK, and the costs of generation have fallen by 72% since 2010. While it can never fulfil the role of providing the base-load because of fluctuations in wind speed, offshore wind power now seems to be our best hope in the bid to replace outdated technologies that produce harmful emissions.
Future electric shocks
Perhaps the main shock to come from the presentations was the evolving technical complexity of electrical power generation and distribution, driven by commercial and political pressures on the industry. Pressures which have manipulated and guided the direction of development over the last century and a half, since the initial vision of ‘supplying light and warmth to London homes.’
The greatest of these pressures now comes from the challenging uncertainty of the future – a need to move away from fossil fuels to newer, greener technologies. The sector now needs co-operation between government and industry to properly plan and finance the research and development required to ensure that it grows and prospers. This industry needs to be given priority, it needs favourable legislation, finance, and stability. Shifting the goalposts each time a new government takes power will not achieve it. Britain can be an innovator and leader in this field, it can be in a position to export this technology rather than importing it and, as was pointed out, the North East has the engineering heritage and skills to make this happen.