History of Electricity

History of Electricity: 19th Century

The roots of the modern electricity generating industry can be found in the middle years of the nineteenth century (in the work of Benjamin FranklinAlessandro Volta and Michael Faraday). Michael Faraday was able to show the relationship between electricity and magnetism, which makes it possible to generate electricity with moving machinery. The first commercial use for electricity was lighting, which was a very little foundation for a global industry! Traction power accelerated the growth of electricity generation: Electric trams and the Underground railway system in London were projects that encouraged the construction of large power stations at the end of the nineteenth century.  A better understanding of electricity in the UK and the rest of the world coincided with the development of the steam engine, widespread use of gas and lighting…

In the UK:

  • In 1881, street lighting became the first public supplies of electricity in the UK.

History of Electricity: 20th Century – 1950s

Electricity became the world’s most important source of energy during the twentieth century. Crucial modern developments such as computers and communications would be impossible without it. At the begining of the twentieth century, spark-ignition and diesel engines were developed and could be used for making electricity. Even though wind turbines were invented before World War II, steam power and hydropower stations provided most of the global power generation until the beginning of the fifties.

In the UK:

  • In 1921, there were more than 480 authorised suppliers of electricity in the UK. They were generating and supplying electricity at a variety of voltages and frequencies.
  • The Electricity Act 1926 created a central authority to promote a national transmission system.  This system was largely completed by the mid-1930s and was having a voltage of 132KV.
  • The Electricity Act 1947 brought the distribution and supply activities of 505 separate organisations in England and Wales under state control and integrated them into 12 regional Area Boards.  The generating assets and liabilities of a number of companies in England and Wales were also transferred into a single state-controlled body.

History of Electricity: 1950s – 1980s

Nuclear power was born in the fifties. It was believe to be a modern and cheap source of energy. It first expanded in the USA and then Great Britain, France and Germany invested heavily. In 1973, worl oil prices rose dramatically with the Arab-Israeli war. By then, oil was still a major fuel for power stations. A lot of countries began to seek new ways of generating electricity including renewable energy.

In the UK:

The Electricity Act 1957 established the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) and the Electricity Council. Under this act, the structure of the nationalised electricity supply industry in England and Wales (ESI) had the following features:

  • CEGB produced the majority of the electricity generated in England and Wales
  • CEGB owned and operated the transmission system and its share of the interconnections with France and Scotland
  • 12 Area Boards purchased electricity, mostly from the CEGB, and distributed and sold it to customers within their designated areas
  • Electricity Council exercised a co-ordinating role for the ESI, providing services in areas of common interest (i.e: national pay bargaining, certain treasury activities…)

History of Electricity: 1980s – onwards

During the eighties, a widespread concern for the environment hit the electricity industry. The industry started to implement measures to reduce environmental emissions from fossil-fuel-fired power plants. These measures accelerated the development of Solar and wind technologies and other renewable sources of electricity such as fuel cells, marine energy…  Offshore wind farms multiplied around the shores of Europe. A lot of these new sources of electricity are now technically and economically viable. We can hope that renewable energy will contribute significantly to the electricity generation mix of the twenty-first century!

In the UK:

In 1988, HM Government published its proposals for the restructuring and privatisation of the ESI. The new structure was introduced on 31 March 1990 under the Electricity Act 1989.  The CEGB’s assets were transferred to four successor companies:

  • The fossil-fuelled power stations were divided between National Power and PowerGen.
  • The nuclear power stations were transferred to Nuclear Electric.
  • The national grid, together with two pumped storage power stations were transferred to The National Grid Company.
  • In addition, the businesses of the 12 Area Boards were transferred to the 12 Regional Electricity Companies (RECs), serving essentially the same regional areas of England and Wales as previously.  Shares in the RECs were sold to the public at the end of 1990.

In 1991, HM Government partially privatised the ESI, creating RWE npower’s predecessor company, National Power. In March 1995, HM Government sold its remaining 40% holding in National Power whilst retaining a special share, which it redeemed in August 2000. In March 2001, the means of trading electricity changed with the introduction in England and Wales of the New Electricity Trading Arrangements (NETA), replacing the Electricity Pool of England and Wales. These arrangements were based on bi-lateral trading between generators, suppliers, traders and customers. They were designed to be more efficient and provide greater choice for market participants, whilst maintaining the operation of a secure and reliable electricity system. Up to March 2005 the electricity industries of Scotland, Northern Ireland and England and Wales operated independently although interconnectors joined all three grid systems together. From April 2005 under the British Electricity Trading and Transmission Arrangements (BETTA), introduced in the Energy Act 2004, the electricity systems of England and Wales and Scotland have been integrated.