The Environmental History of the National Grid The Process of Electrification: Infrastructure and Influence

Change log
Button, Katherine Shillabeer 

British electrification began in the 1880s but it was the late 1920s before the ‘GridIron’ was constructed providing the capacity for uniformly accessible electricity. This enabled electricity to touch people's lives in the intimacy of their own homes, and provided cheaper electricity to workplaces, causing a shift from local suppliers to national coordination. Consequences for pollution, its visual impact on rural and urban landscapes, and an unparalleled and rapid intrusion on property rights were considered at the time. It was these effects that were the most controversial, although the damage through fossil fuels was arguably much greater with hindsight. The provision of electricity across the whole country took decades and was subject to exogenous pressures and was influenced by individuals, institutions and innovations. Electrification generally, and the Grid in particular has received scant attention from historians, especially regarding its environmental and social impacts and the fuel it consumed. This work tells the story of electricity as a commodity; initially sold by hundreds of individual companies operating generating stations providing a local electrical supply, and how this slowly transformed into a nationally coordinated system. The Grid, a vast network of towers and cables, transmitted bulk electricity generated by large power stations burning enormous quantities of coal. This work considers how this affected the environments in which people lived and worked and how these changes impacted the ‘natural’ environment. This work has only just begun to explore the changes that electricity brought spatially and how it impacted lifestyles and working methods. It explores how change was negotiated by actors and considers ‘unintentional conservation’, brought about by a drive to continuously improve efficiency and which occurred before the need for such environmental protection was well understood.

Warde, Paul
Environmental history, British Electrification, Electrification, Infrastructure
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
Funded by the AHRC