Introduction

Visitors arriving by train at London’s Victoria Station pass under the imposing hulk of Battersea Power Station. Still one of the largest brick buildings in the city, little of the working heart of the beast remains, but her iconic towers cast an impressive sight. Still fewer commuters will be aware that the skies of the capital once hung heavy with the smoke from over seventy separate power stations in the city alone and a further forty in Greater London.

A less than legal start sets the chaotic scene

Many credit the Gatti brothers with installing London’s first electricity station in their huge Adelaide Restaurant in 1883. The brothers also had a stake in the Adelphi Theatre down the road and laid a wire along Maiden Lane to link the two. This, not entirely legal venture, is also credited with being the first power line laid in a public street.

The first steps towards electrifying London had been set a year earlier with the Electric Lighting Act of 1882 which was the first Act of Parliament relating to electricity supply. It had intended to favour the supply of electricity through a “municipal enterprise” of local authorities which were already providers of much of the city’s gas, water and tramways. Under the Act, some 32 provisional orders were granted for London and in several districts Parliament sanctioned more than one undertaking for the supply of both AC and DC, with the consumer being allowed freedom of choice. In a few localities three different enterprises obtained powers and, with true British lack of logic, some important places like Staple Inn, Lincoln’s Inn, and the parish of St. Peter, Westminster, were not mentioned in any lighting order.

Development from 1888

The regime established in the 1882 Act did not lead to establishment of a city wide electricity supply and was generally thought to be stifling investment. The fault was not entirely down to the Act since the risks associated with developing a new network were high and the initial payoffs low. To try and spur development, in 1888 the local authorities were able to grant much longer orders (from 21 to 42 years) and to relax the planning rules. This longer monopoly – albeit still in a relatively small locations – made many more schemes practical and coincided with technological advances in distribution and generation. In the next ten years, 40 more power stations.

In 1898 an Act of Parliament removed the local licences and allowed power companies to sell electricity in bulk and beyond the boundaries of their local authority. Unsurprisingly, the first company formed to do this was linked the rapidly developing underground network (North Metropolitan Power Supply or NorthMet) that fed the underground and many rural areas. Without a standardised national network, and still with the focus on local generation and supply, different areas of London operated by remarkably different schemes; in Chelsea batteries supplied the entire load with a duplicate set being charged and then swapped out when full! One local resident remarked that

The lights were wonderfully bright and flicker free…until they swapped the batteries and the whole of Chelsea went dark

The London Board of Trade thought that competition – almost regardless of the impact upon the market – was a good thing and so promoted numerous different suppliers with the upshot that many areas had all manner of different currents, voltages and frequencies. Outside of the central heart of the city, the number of generators was fewer and the NorthMet began to dominate the supply business but even out here there were over 60 power stations.

One of the main drivers for the large number of power stations was the restrictions placed upon location and placement of distribution networks. Stations had to be close to the sites of consumption and thus smaller and more numerous. Lobbying by the larger generators lead to the passing of the Electric Lightening Act (1909) which allowed the Board of Trade to issue compulsory purchase powers to buy up land and break up streets. It was hoped that this would ease the issues by replacing inefficient stations with larger more efficient ones but in effect the older assets merely supplemented any new stations.

Greater London had 80 power companies, operating 70 generating stations, employing 50 different systems of supply at 24 varying voltages and 10 incompatible frequencies. It was, in short, a very British sort of affair

Another Act to sort another mess

Parliament stepped back in and passed the Electricity Supply Act (1919) which established Electricity Commissioners who took over from The Board of Trade and were able to co-ordinate within large specified areas and, if necessary, assume control of generating plant to improve efficiency. It took a further six years for such a Commissioner to be set up in London but when it was, it covered an area of 1841 square miles and set about obtaining orders to transfer the powers of local authorities. So veracious was its appetite that it soon transferred the powers of almost 40 local authorities and it became clear that its long term goal – perhaps to wide-held approval – was eventual establishment of a single generating and distribution authority.

In tandem with the centralisation of power authorities, many of London’s electricity companies had already began to realise that generating in bulk with modern efficient plant was the way forward. In 1925, the London Power Company (LPC) was formed with most of the London distribution companies selling their generation to the company who, in turn, agreed to manage supply and to upgrade the network. Those that did not agree to join the LPC were allowed to interconnect their systems to load balance. The LPC erected a vast new station at Barking to facilitate this.

Regardless of the efforts of the LPC and Commissioners, progress was slow and a shakeup was needed. The establishment of the Central Electricity Board was allied with the remit to only buy power from the most efficient stations and to sell it to any authority that wanted it. Furthermore, it mandated that power stations were to be interconnected by a vast distribution system (the National Grid) and these economies of scale would be able to supply power at a lower cost than any one individual supplier could themselves. In order to push development, the CEA would only buy from designated stations – the most efficient – and in September 1933 the national grid was completed.

The impact of this was twofold; standardising upon one distribution system meant adopting a single set of power, current & frequencies and the closure of many of the cities small local generators. Both of these were not as rapid as one would believe. Even in the late 1960’s there were four areas of London that still offered DC supply and non-standard voltages were still common place. Indeed, as late as 1987, the Daily Mail was still using DC for the printing press as were theatres for the arc lamps.

Ring a ring a roses

By 1940 the Central Electricity Board had developed into a 132kV ring main around London running between Watford, Barking, Croydon, Beddington, Wimbledon, Leatherhead, Woking, Uxbridge and back to Watford. From these main centres, 66kV interconnected systems linked the main generation assets. As previously mentioned, the move to more efficient units, spurred the construction/modernisation of several huge power stations in the London area with Battersea (480MW) and Fulham (310MW) being prime examples.

Map showing the locations of all power stations in London around 1950
Map showing the locations of all power stations in London around 1950

After the Second World War electricity supply was nationalised and the responsibility for London was split between the London Electricity Board and Eastern Electricity for outer London but the writing was on the wall for large scale generation in London.

Bring the station to the coal

It became the policy of the British Electricity Authority to construct or rebuild power stations that were near the various coal fields, the theory being that is was more expensive to move coal around than to move electricity

To distribute this electricity a new super-grid was constructed during the 1950s basically to export electricity from the generating areas (mainly the Midlands) to the heavy areas of usage such as London. The supergrid deployed double circuits of double conductors operating at 275kV. From 1965 the need to carry even more power as usage increased resulted in new circuits or upgraded circuits operating quad cables at 400kV. The new found ability to ship so much electricity into the London area at comparatively low-cost is what finally sounded the death knell for the London power stations; 32 London stations closed between 1960 and 1980.

By 1984 The London’s only surviving power stations were: Watford (Gas Turbine), Taylor’s Lane (Gas Turbine), Brunswick Wharf (Oil), Belvedere (Oil) and Littlebrook (Gas Turbine). Much of London’s power came from outside, and by now Greater London had two ring mains, both operating as 275kV double circuits

As of the 21st Century, electricity has been de-nationalized with the grid operated by National Grid Transco; the distribution networks (of the former area boards) around London are now mainly operated by EDF Energy, and a small number of power stations are operated by a number of private concerns. The principle of buying electricity from the most efficient stations has endured, but it is sold to any number of retail concerns and merely distributed by the distribution companies

Today there are only four significant generating stations in the London area, all using modern technology, though two of them are on historic sites. There are other power stations outside the London area, including seven in the Thames Estuary, but the grid supplies the vast bulk of electricity to London, which uses 20 per cent of the country’s electricity. The London sites are:

  1. Barking Reach (1GW Combined Cycle Gas Turbine station) on a new site
  2. Taylors Lane (132MW Willesden) (Gas Turbine) – New station opened 1979 on site of older one closed 1972.
  3. Croydon (80MW Combined Cycle Gas Turbine station) – Croydon Energy on a new site
  4. Brimsdown [Enfield] (396MW) – Enfield Energy Centre Ltd

Conclusion

Change is but the only constant in London and this is just as clear when talking about power as it about her skyline. The frenzied early days, wildly varying plans and vast variety of approaches taken to generating, strike the modern observer as being laughably chaotic. Numerous Acts of Parliament and organisations attempted to bring order and standardisation but as with much of the 20th Century, it was the combined onslaught of War, market forces and environmental impacts that put the end to large scale generation in London. The article has purposely avoided talk the great smogs in the 1950’s – they’re worthy of consideration on their own – but while the current sight of Battersea Power Station stripped and ripped bare is a sad one, there can be little doubt that London is better with her silent than smoking and what will come on the site will be just as empowering to the city as what was once there.

 

References

  1. The Supply of Electricity in the London Area – Irving (1954)
  2. The Generation of Electrictiy in the London Area –Pugh (1955)
  3. London Area Power Supply: A Survey of London’s Electric Lighting and Power Stations – Horne (2012)

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