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Security of Supply: The Role of the State in Britain’s Emerging National Electricity Network, 1914-1956

Coleman, Paul Michael (2018) Security of Supply: The Role of the State in Britain’s Emerging National Electricity Network, 1914-1956. PhD thesis, University of Leeds.

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This thesis explores how energy security has been a key feature of British government policy in electrification since the First World War, in contrast to accounts that characterise electrification as if simply a means to achieve greater economic efficiency in energy supply. For Britain this focus on energy security has historically meant reliance on coal: since the end of the nineteenth century, new high-efficiency technologies of electricity generation and network distribution had offered a means of reducing the tonnage of coal needed to produce power. Economic histories of electricity supply in Britain, such as Hannah’s Electricity Before Nationalisation, as well as more recent work such Hausman Hertner’s Global Electrification: Multinational Enterprise and International Finance in the History of Light and Power, 1878-2007, have focused almost exclusively on such efficiency-centred arguments to explain the widespread electrification of the UK in the first half of the twentieth century. These works, however, do not consider the additional security benefits that were secured in ubiquitous electricity supply, whether in terms of the strategic preservation of coal stocks for future use, or of the potential risks of becoming overly reliant on a fallible coal supply for electrical production, or of the breakdown of electricity power supply for a variety of reasons. I show that the development of a National Electricity Supply, between 1914 and 1956, was part of a deliberate move by the State (of any and all political affiliations) to fulfil their top priority of security of energy supply for British industry, Ironically, however, the success of this move to widen electrical usage also had the unintended effect of significantly increasing the UK’s dependence on coal and therefore vulnerability to any interruption in the localised supply of coal to the power stations. Hence, establishment of a plan for a National Grid of electricity supply from 1926, the year of the General Strike, was also a vital strategic move to attain national security, enabling the multi-routed distribution of electricity around the entire country’s industries to minimise any disruption to power supplies from the four security threats of enemy attack, industrial action by coal or power-station workers, political (terrorist/revolutionary) sabotage or accidental damage. Not only did the distributed infrastructure of electrical energy supply became part of the national defences to deal with airborne attacks first encountered in the First World War, it also became an essential part of preparedness for future conflict, in what Edgerton has dubbed the ‘Warfare State’. Throughout the thesis I explore the tension between Hannah’s and Hughes’s arguments for economic efficiency, and the agenda of security of supply which was less efficient but limited the nation’s vulnerability. I show that, both in peace and war, security of supply was the overridingly important factor in the development of Britain’s National Grid.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Keywords: National Security, Electricity, infrastructure
Academic Units: The University of Leeds > Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Cultures (Leeds) > School of Philosophy, Religion and the History of Science
Depositing User: Mr Paul Michael Coleman
Date Deposited: 28 Feb 2020 12:21
Last Modified: 28 Feb 2020 12:21
URI: http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/id/eprint/26191

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