Generating power has been a necessity in Britain for longer than most people would think. Firewood was replaced with charcoal as early as the Roman Occupation and coal mining was a major source of fuel by the 13th Century. Coal provided the primary energy source for hundreds of years after that, powering the first steam engines of the Industrial Revolution as well as heating buildings and running factories. For London, the first street lamps lit by gas were installed in Westminster in 1813, but all that would change for Britain’s capital as electricity became a new reliable source of power. This new source was a result of the work of Michael Faraday, who developed the electric motor, transformer, and generator from the early-to-mid-19th Century.
After the development of the incandescent light bulb by Joseph Swan in the 1870s, the first electric bulbs were installed in 1881 at the Savoy Theatre. The Electric Lighting Act of 1882 soon followed, paving the way for private companies to establish their own power generating stations to light the streets of the United Kingdom. Sir Coutts Lindsay then built London’s first power station for electricity at Grosvenor Gallery on Bond Street in 1883. As the Electric Lighting Act mostly focused on giving local councils the ability to issue the electricity licenses, power generation was mostly confined to community power stations until the construction of Deptford Power Station in 1891.
Deptford was the city’s first “central” power station, meaning that it was remote from the majority of the consumers who received their power from it. It’s impressive scale, and the number of volts generated was unprecedented for the time, and after the plant was rebuilt, the electricity generated by it became even more stable and powered large sections of the city. Despite this, London still relied largely on the local power stations to generate much of its energy until the technology advanced such that larger stations could generate power over longer distances. Many of London’s early power stations included Battersea, Acton Lane, Bankside, Greenwich, Kingston, and Blackwall Point, amongst others.
Around the same time, London began to dabble in hydroelectric power, with the London Hydraulic Power Company established in 1884. A series of hydraulic power stations pumped water from the River Thames to move turbines that generated electric power. The first of these stations actually opened in 1883 at Falcon Wharf on Bankside serving just seven miles of lines. Later hydroelectric stations included Kensington Court, Phillip Lane, Millbank, Wapping, City Road, Rotherhithe, and Grosvenor Road.
In 1947, the British Electricity Authority was created that nationalized the electricity industry in the UK, including all the separate power companies that supplied London. This organization was replaced in the 1950s by the Central Electricity Authority, which became the Central Electricity Generating Board in 1957. More new plants were built around London in the years following, including Belvedere Power Station in Kent prior to this becoming part of South London when the Borough of Bexley was created in 1965.
However, it wouldn’t be ten years before many of the city’s original power stations would close as they became increasingly inefficient and unprofitable. Battersea Power Station A would cease use in 1975 and ceased generating power altogether in 1983. Shortly before that, Bankside Power Station closed in 1981. Both structures were grade-listed buildings, so they could not simply be torn down, but both ended up finding other uses, with Bankside eventually becoming the Tate Modern art museum and Battersea currently being converted into a mixed-use development of flats, offices, shops, and restaurants.
As the older stations closed, newer ones have been established to take their place. With the denationalization of the power industry under Margaret Thatcher’s Premiership in 1989, the stations are operated by several different companies including E.ON, EDF Entergy, ATCO Power, and South East London Combined Heat & Power Ltd. The last of these is proving to be truly innovative as its station located in South Bermondsey is the city’s first solid waste burning plant rather than a fossil fuel plant, opening in 1994 and burning 420,000 tonnes of municipal solid waste per year. Green energy has been a big driver in the city’s energy market, with more corporations and neighborhoods seeking to incorporate solar power into their energy schemes. Organizations such as Repowering London assists in this by helping schools, housing estates, and local councils install solar panels and develop other energy-saving measures. Even firms such as E.ON are finding ways to make use of what already exists, with the company refitting older stations like the underground one near Smithfield Market so that it can continue to serve the people of London.
As London continues to grow and its needs for power grow with it, the sources of electricity in the city will change in parallel. As older stations get converted into new uses or transformed to help meet the needs of London’s citizens, innovation drives development of the city’s power system for additional plants or means of generating power. With new technologies being developed and forgotten stations retrofitted to accommodate the demand, London will continue to be an electric city for many years to come.