Power in North East England: The Birth and Growth of National Electricity Supply
2.00pm, Wednesday 15th March 2023
The Common Room, Newcastle upon Tyne
Les Brunton organised this event for the N&N in conjunction with Ian Burdon, a former Engineer colleague at Consultants Merz and McLellan. Les and Ian share an interest in electrical engineering history and have long supported the case for promoting the story behind the profound influence of local industry personalities in the establishment of the North East Electric Supply Co. (NESCO) and developing its interconnected electricity grid system here in the North East, leading to adoption of the principle nationally and throughout the world.
The Membership and Activities Committee were pleased to rise to the challenge, supporting this event aimed at providing an insight into the electrical engineering initiative shown by local influential entrepreneurs which stretches from the 1890s to the present day and beyond. Presentations by two highly regarded experts in the field covered the birth of the industry in the late 19th century, nationalisation in the mid-20th century and new technologies being developed and applied by private companies to provide affordable, reliable and sustainable low-carbon electrical energy.
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.
Two local speakers, Tom McGovern of Newcastle University Business School and Tony Quinn of Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult, were invited to guide us through the whole story.
The first lecture, by Tom McGovern of Newcastle University Business School, 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, Charles Parsons and Alphonse Reyrolle. Merz and Spence-Watson were Quakers and philanthropists, and 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 USA.
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.
In the second lecture Tony Quinn, Director of Technology Development at Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult Ltd in Blyth, 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.
We had advertised the event within the wider engineering and academic communities, for which we were rewarded by a near-capacity audience of 90+, including many former local engineering employees discussed in the presentations and indeed several engineering undergraduates, ensuring a lively debate at the end.
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: 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. The appreciative audience was left in no doubt about the depth of knowledge of our two speakers, or about the passion with which they extolled the capabilities of our local technological workforce.
Download the speakers’ slides
Professor Tom McGovern, Newcastle University Business School: What have North East pioneers contributed to the development of the UK electricity supply industry?
Tony Quinn, Director of Technology Development, Catapult Offshore Renewable Energy: The UK Electricity Industry 1950 – 2050