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The History of British Power

Press Release: May 28, 2020

Throughout the years, a whole host of power sources have been used to keep the nation on the go. Great Britain has experienced power crises of all varieties, but the industries workforce has consistently worked hard to overcome these issues. Take a whirlwind tour through the history of British power. 

The firewood crisis  

Using wood to generate heat has been around for centuries. The timber industry was booming in Britain throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, selling supplies to both the rich and the poor. However, the nation was gripped by a shortage of this wood at varying points during the period. The firewood shortage was an existential difficulty to overcome, yet it was largely self-inflicted. By extreme deforestation methods, the 93,000 square miles of our island had become a depleted firewood resource. Regrowth wasn’t happening at a sustainable enough rate, so the country braced itself for a disrupted energy supply. This contended with an explosive increase in the urban population and all uses of timber were stretched, including the construction and paper industries. The shortage swept across Europe and Britain’s forests were notably insufficient in alleviating the situation, which began to take its toll on the poorest in society.  

The industrial revolution onwards  

In 1801, a census showed that only 20% of the population lived in towns, and by 1851, this figure soared to over 50%. The shift from agricultural employment towards factories and assembly line production followed, marking the characteristics of the industrial revolution. In 1879 Newcastle, where leading electricity network operator Northern Powergrid is headquartered, became the first city street in the world to be lit by electric lighting. 

Britain emerged as one of the most powerful trading nations in the world and the development of steam technology was a driving force behind this. Engineers Matthew Boulton and James Watt pioneered this development, with their invention of the steam engine, realising the potential of steam as a valid source of power. Further to this, in 1888 wind turbines were invented, and they went on to dominate the supply of power until the early 1950s.  

20th century progression 

By the twentieth century, electricity was the world’s most important energy source. Developments such as spark-ignition and diesel engines were invented and were used to enhance the processes involved in making electricity. By 1921, there were over 480 suppliers of electricity in the UK, authorised to generate and distribute power to fuel the nation at varying voltages and frequencies. In 1926, Stanley Baldwin’s Conservative government passed the Electricity Act, promising cheaper, readily available electricity. In a pre-National Grid society, a laissez-faire approach was administered – which made no contribution to help reduce costs. Keeping five bulbs going for a whole day would’ve costed the same as a person’s entire week’s wages for the average citizen, which indicates the truth of how available electricity really was. Therefore, the act set out to tackle this – and the National Grid was born out of it, connecting 122 of the most efficient power stations in the country.  

By 1947, the act had been brought up to date, and the supply activities of 505 organisations in England and Wales were integrated into a series of 12 regional boards. In the 1950s, nuclear power emerged as a perceived modern, cheap energy source; but with the Arab-Israeli war in 1973, oil prices rose drastically, and Britain was one of many countries that was forced to start thinking for other ways to generate electricity, such as renewable energy.  

Modern day changes 

Despite contrary belief, the narrative of environmental damage in relation to electricity began in the 1980s. Emissions from fossil-fueled plants have been targeted for decades and this led to the development of marine, solar, and wind energy. In 1989, a revised Electricity Act was enforced, which outlined the privatisation of the electricity supply to the UK, replacing the Central Electricity Generating Board which covered England, Wales and Scotland. Changes were made in the trading process, as in March 2001, England and Wales were subject to the New Electricity Trading Arrangements, replacing the Electricity Pool. The new system was based on bi-lateral trading arrangements between suppliers, generators, customers, and traders. Until March 2005 the electricity industries in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland operated independently, with interconnectors. After April 2005, the British Electricity Trading and Transmission Arrangements outlined the Energy Act 2004, which integrated the energy systems of England, Wales and Scotland.  


In May 2019, Britain went coal-free for 100 hours, the longest time since the industrial revolution, setting a new precedent in the power industry. The National Grid has said the UK’s dependence on coal is undoubtedly falling, so the future could prove very interesting in terms of new electric connection opportunities!  

Notes to editors

For more information, please contact:

Jack Johnson

Email: [email protected]

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