ICE - Smeaton Lecture - Coal-fired Power Generation in the UK: the beginning and the end

20th July 2021 6:00 pm

When the Romans invaded Britain they discovered extensive coal fields. By the 18th century coal was the main source of heat and power and in 1769 James Watt patented a steam engine utilising a separate steam condenser which revolutionised energy production. However it wasn’t until over a century later in 1882 that the world’s first coal-fired power station generating electricity for public use was opened at Holborn Viaduct, London.

From there coal production and electricity generation from coal grew exponentially. By 1920 almost 100% of electricity came from coal. With energy consumption growing at an enormous rate and Britain’s economy stabilised post WW2 a massive programme to build new coal fired power stations was started. Production stayed above 90% until the late 1950’s as nuclear began to supplement coal. In the late 1980’s the ‘dash for gas’ was enabled and renewables began to appear as potentially commercially viable. From there climate change and the focus on CO2 emissions rang the death knell for the use of coal.

The drive and determination of the UK’s power engineers shows as much ingenuity and invention as their Smeatonian forebears and other early engineers. Significant engineering and operational challenges were faced and overcome to provide the nation with continuous and inexpensive electricity from coal. Most people have no idea what is involved in getting electricity to the lightbulb in their house.

John Baxter will plot the journey of coal-fired electricity production in the UK and use the Drax powers station to illustrate the challenges and successes faced by power engineers. He will also give an insight into Biomass power generation, combined with Carbon Capture and Storage and the potential for a “negative emissions” power plant that could be the hub of a zero emissions industrial region.

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