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History Of Electricity Part 1

What We Use To Make Electricity

In the first of a series of posts on the history of electricity in the UK, we’re looking at the fuels used to generate our electricity, now and in the past.

It’s about more than just fuel though – it tells us a lot about how technology and our way of life have changed over the period too. The data we’ve used comes from DECC.

1920 – small amounts of oil were used to generate electricity, but coal made up the majority. Coal was still being mined in the UK in large quantities, which made it the natural choice to burn in power stations.

1928 – natural flow hydro makes its first appearance in the national fuel mix. But, even in 1928 renewable energy wasn’t something new – it had been used since the very beginning of the electricity industry – the first hydroelectric power plants being built in the 1870s. When you think of hydroelectricity as a development on the water wheel, it’s long history starts to make sense.

1930 – coke and breeze makes its way into the fuel mix. Coke and breeze (also known as coke breeze) is a fine dust that is a by-product of the coke-making process.

1956 – the UK starts using nuclear power. The Calder Hall nuclear power plant opened in 1956; it was the first in the world to produce nuclear energy on an industrial scale.

1969 – natural gas is introduced. In 1965, large quantities of natural gas were discovered off the Yorkshire coast that revolutionised the way we heated our homes and generated electricity. Homes had to have new gas connections and appliances had to be upgraded or replaced so that the new gas could be used. It also had an impact on the environment – natural gas burns far more cleanly than oil and coal, and produces fewer carbon emissions.

1969-73 – the use of oil to generate electricity rises sharply, but then falls dramatically. 1973 marked the start of an oil price crisis as a result of political issues in the Middle East, not that different a situation to that seen recently as a result of the Arab Spring.

1973-75 – use of coal falls slightly in 1972 and 1974. This can be attributed to the miners’ strikes that took place in those years, and are also a hint at what was to come in the 1980s.

1984-5 – the use of coal plummets and oil fills the gap. The massive drop in the use of coal was due to the closure of mines and miners’ strike – a pivotal moment in the UK’s recent history – which was a reaction to the government’s decision to close a large number of the UK’s mines.

1992-97 -during the 90s, the use of natural gas grew incredibly sharply, and use of coal fell just as sharply as many of the UK’s coalmines had disappeared.

1998 – the use of nuclear power peaks. The UK’s newest nuclear power plant, Sizewell B opened in 1995 but other plants such as Bradwell have closed in the last few years. The 1986 Chernobyl disaster brought home the dangers of nuclear power, and the cost of building safe plants and dealing with nuclear waste made it a less-attractive option.

2002-06 – the rise of renewable energy sources like solar and wind power, becoming a bigger and bigger part of our energy mix as we look to the future and come to terms with dwindling fossil fuel reserves.

2011 – oil use in electricity generation falls to 1949 levels,. Oil prices have been exceptionally volatile in recent years, which is a good indication of why less of it has been used to generate electricity.

2013 – The UK fuel mix is 38% Coal, 28% Gas, 21% Nuclear, 11% Renewable and 2% from other sources such as oil

The future – Coal and Gas being pushed to the margins, nuclear being decommissioned, to be replaced by ubiquitous renewable energy sources and an increase in localised generation on smart grids… or more of the same? The big questions that not even the energy industry can currently answer.

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