The early days of electricity – Diverse decisions and technologies

Public electricity supplies started to evolve in the UK during the 1880s.  Today electricity is a utility accessible by a high proportion of the population, but in its early days it was part of the luxury goods industry, a unit might cost between 4d and 1s 3d (2p to 6p) which is around £1 in today’s money.  Its attraction was that it was convenient and clean and therefore perceived as being healthier than the gas lamps that it was to displace over the next half century.  Arc lamps improved the lighting of streets and public spaces and this gave local authorities an interest in the industry.  The industry grew using both public and private capital, and some local authorities proved to be adept in managing the evolution of a new technology.  Street lighting was often managed by the gas committee, because that was how the streets were lit, so decisions about borrowing substantial sums against the rates were being made by men who were often involved in decisions about the lighting of urinals

The caption on this cartoon was Electricity for the Ballroom

Electricity works, especially those supplying DC had to be close to the consumer because of the limitation of the early distribution systems.  This resulted in generating plant being located in unlikely places like London’s Carnaby Street: its contribution to the swinging sixties is well remembered but its power station is long forgotten. The search for early power stations often takes one to the posher parts of town.

Most of the early dynamos and alternators were turned by reciprocating steam engines.  The early engines were relatively small and built by companies also known for their traction engines and road rollers such as Robey or Fowler.  Until the development of high speed engines such as those of Willans which facilitated direct coupling, the generators were connected to the engine by a belt drive.  Belts would sometime break, in 1882,  the Mansion House was provided with electricity from a generator installed in the basement, where the belt was driven by a gas engine.  During a dinner the belt broke giving the diners the impression they were being attacked by gunfire.  In 1888, the first turbine driven alternator was installed at the Forth Bank power station, close to the centre of Newcastle.

Large generators were steam driven because steam engines could be built to supply hundreds of horsepower and it was a mature technology. At this time steam engines were almost as common as electric motors are today, they powered mills, railways, ships, sawmills, pumps and anything big which needed turning.  Smaller plant in urban areas often used gas engines.  By 1880, most urban and some rural areas had a gas supply and whilst this was mainly used for lighting, it could also used as fuel for engines such as those made by Crossley.  The attraction of gas engines was that there was no need for a boiler and most could be hand cranked into life when needed.  Judging by the number of adverts for fractional horsepower gas engines in pre-1900 magazines, many modest homes may have generated their own electricity from gas.  Such a system is described in a biography of Magnus Volk, the house in which it was installed is comfortable, but not grand.  Many micro systems incorporated a bank of lead acid accumulators making it unnecessary to run the gas engine continuously.

During 1880s and 90s AC and DC systems competed for supremacy.  The AC system would eventually win because it facilitated transmission over long distances allowing big power stations to be sited away from city centres.  However, DC did have the advantage of being able to use lead acid accumulators for storage.  Then as now, the demand for electricity peaked in the early morning and early evening and if only a few hundred homes were being supplied overnight demand could be met from the accumulators allowing the steam plant to be shut down or the boilers banked up.  Accumulators also provided some back-up in the event of plant problems, for this reason, some consumers perceived DC systems as being more reliable.

In the early days, the demand for electricity was measured in kW rather than MW making it possible to supply rural communities using small plant connected to consumers by wires hung from wooden poles. Some of these used water power, Godalming claims the distinction of having the first public electricity supply, this was from a generator turned by a water wheel in a mill. Reeth in Yorkshire had a similar arrangement.

Initially, electricity was an urban industry relying on clusters of high income households, some smaller communities were still not connected to a central generating station until well into the interwar period.  It was during this time that many small electric companies were formed, examples include the Steyning Electric Light Company and the Peacehaven Electric Light and Power company.  I’ve seen photo’s of these companies’ plant, both show belt driven generators, in both cases it looks like the motive power is coming from an industrial internal combustion engine, but it is not clear if the fuel was oil or gas.  One of the more interesting of these companies is the High Salvington Electric Light Company, this served a small development of houses on the Downs to the north of Worthing. The generator was turned by a wind mill/turbine similar in design to those of West Texas -the electricity was used to charge up accumulators which in turn supplied the consumers.  There was an oil engine back-up for days when the wind did not blow.  Now that utility scale storage, like Tesla’s installation in Adelaide is becoming available, High Salvington can claim to be pioneer in the field of sustainable energy.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

This stuff could be boring

For me there has been a recurring theme which has emerged whilst exploring sustainability.  Generation is exciting, standing on the seafront in Brighton I’ve watched the installation of the Rampion wind farm and been fascinated by the offshore construction vessels and even rooftop PV can be a conversation.  However, the things that make a difference at a personal level are conservation and management.  Ten years ago we consumed more 20 kwh/day of electricity, now its 2.5 kwh/day, this was achieved by doing little more than changing the light bulbs, initially to CFLs and recently to LEDs.  Changing a lightbulb does not make you an eco-warrior and I try not to talk about it at.

Dealing with the central heating has been a little more complex and involved pipe benders and a gas torch.  Some bits of the old system were maybe, half a century old and some even older fossils had to be removed to make way for shiny new pipe.  Lime scale and a thick black sludge had reduced the ability of the system to consume gas, much like an old bloke in pub who takes all night to drink a pint.  After a week the doctrine of unforeseen consequences has kicked in; the new system has a prodigious thirst.

It was always part of the plan to have motorised valves on the radiators.  As an interim solution the radiators have thermostatic valves (TRVs).  These have exceeded expectation as they do excerpt some restraining influence, Their weakness is that they can’t turn the boiler on or off.  To avoid financial hardship and becoming a CO2 skid mark, their replacement is going to be accelerated.

I try to keep my passions to myself but I have become aware that central heating controls are much like false teeth, no one want to talk about them unless there is a mobile phone involved and I imagine that people stand around in the street turning their heating one and off just because they can.

I end this post with a question, how do you make domestic energy management something that can be discussed at the office Christmas party?

Posted in Conservation, Energy, Technology | Leave a comment

A random history of energy economics (3) – The life cycle of fuels

Fuels like any other product have life cycles.  The stages of the classic life cycle are growth, maturity and decline.  For some fuels like wood, the length of the cycle is measured in millennia, that of coal looks like it might be centuries and carbide probably decades.

My understanding of acetylene lamps is that they were developed for cars and motorbikes at the very end of the 19th century.  Whilst electric incandescent lamps could be powered by a lead-acid accumulator, they were not bright enough to allow safe driving at speed.  The attraction of acetylene is that it burns at a high temperature and produces a bright light.  The gas was generated by the action of water on calcium carbide, the lamps were so constructed that a reservoir of water dripped on calcium carbide which was then burnt in a lamp with a reflector.  The brightness of the lamp was controlled by adjusting the water flow, as the gas was generated, the carbide turned to slaked lime.  “Carbide” was sold in garages along with petrol and oil during the 1920’s, but as automotive electrics improved and effective headlamps which could be controlled by a switch became a standard fitting, carbide lamps were largely displaced by the 1930s.

Kerosene (a.k.a. paraffin) as a domestic fuel had a somewhat longer life cycle, it was used for lighting and cooking in late 19th century.  In the era of solid fuel ranges. it facilitated cooking without first having to light a coal fire, although many found the smell unattractive.  Paraffin heaters were widely used well into 1970s and may people remember the Esso’s adaption of “the smoke gets in your eyes” for their TV adverts.  Paraffin heaters were generally displaced by low cost gas central heating in the 1970s.

The same pattern of growth, maturity and decline is apparent in the UK coal consumption.  A spokesman for OPEC once commented that the UK did not run out of coal, they just stopped using it.  In the latter part of the 19th century consumption grew as industry, the railways, gas production and other applications expanded.  It remained constant for approximately half a century until the 1970’s.  During this time the economy was growing, but technology was evolving which allowed coal to be used more efficiently.  In 1890, electrical power generation had a thermal efficiency well below 5%, by 1970, this was approaching 40%.  The boilers used in the early power stations operated around 150 psi, by 1945 some were operating at 675 psi, the rising temperatures and pressures resultined in higher operating efficiencies.

In the 1960, natural gas (mostly methane) from the North Started to displace coal as a domestic and industrial fuel.

The displacement of coal by natural gas is apparent in the graph below.  Starting around 1830, many towns acquired as gas works either privately or municipally owned, in the early years the principal use was for lighting, but cooking, heating and industrial use increased.  Between 1900 and 1930, electricity, also generated from coal, displaced gas for lighting.    The availability of North Sea gas bought about the extinction of the coal gas works in less than a decade.

Gas turbine power stations, steadily displace coal fired steam technology, a process which accelerated in the 21st century as concerns over the environmental effects of coal grew.

Relevance for Today

The energy mix is constantly changing, the driving force is technology, over two centuries it has included coal, wind, nuclear (after 50 years is this an old technology) and many evolutions within each one.  There is a lot of evolving technology, offshore wind and electrical storage maybe the key elements.  Several cities are talking about petrol or diesel vehicles and only allowing electrical ones, so more change can be expected.

Posted in Economics, Energy, History, Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

A Random history of energy economics (2) – The Horse and the Lorry

By 1900 railways were the most important element in Britain’s transport infrastructure, but they only provided town-to-town communication.  The distribution of goods within a town was done with men with barrows and horses with carts.  In the rural areas “carriers” moved goods and people around with horse drawn wagons.  Horses were widely used well into the 1930s by which time motor transport was firmly established.

I came across some figures comparing the cost of coal distribution from depot to customer by 30 cwt truck and a horse and cart in 1931.  The figures seem to relate to an adequately funded and well run coal business.  Two points about the graphs, first they are for 1931 and are not comparable to costs in 2017 and that the original data is in pounds, shillings and pence which was converted decimal pounds for the benefit of Excel.  I have doctored the data a little for the sake of comparability.  In 1931, the price of domestic coal was between £1.50 and £4.50 per ton depending on the grade, local terrain and market conditions.  Anthracite was the premium product whist Bituminous coal was cheaper, also coke from gas works was widely used.

Both the horse and truck were depreciated over four years and  funded by money at 5%, the horse cost £90 and the truck £250.  The cost structures for both modes of transport is broadly similar, the exceptions are higher capital related costs of the truck, the legal requirements for a license and insurance and maintenance.  Food for the horse and fuel for the truck are similar as are the wages of the driver.

The big difference is the level of productivity, the horse shifts 38.5 tons/week, whilst the truck can do 49.5, but the unit costs are similar at around £0.20/ton.  I suspect that there was a lot of variation within the industry.  If only one man was employed to work with the truck, he would have to work harder than the bloke with the horse and cart, the references I have seen to coal sacks at this time suggest there were 1.25 cwt ( very roughly 62kg or very heavy, I struggle with 25kg bags of sand).  This might have been OK for a youngish man shooting coal into a cellar with street access, much less for an older one shifting the bag from the street to coal store in the scullery at the back of the house.

Some random reading suggests that the domestic coal market was split into three sectors.  At the top end would be customers that bought coal in large quantities, say greater than half a ton, possibly belonging to a “coal club”  which spread the cost more or less evenly over the year, trucks would give an advantage to merchants serving this group.  Those serving customers purchasing less than half a ton and paying the current market price might have a cost advantage from the potentially lower costs of the horse and cart.  At the bottom end of the market would be those purchasing small quantities of coal, possibly as little as 7 pounds would pay high prices to men with barrows.

Posted in Economics, Energy, History, Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

A Random History of Energy Economics (1) – Gas Engines in the Home

Over the past year I’ve been acquiring a few copies of the “The Model Engineer and Amateur Electrician” at car boot sales.  I now have about 15 examples dating from 1899 to 1919.  Models make up a large part of the content, but there is also an informed debate on technology as it was evolving.  At the bottom of one page is a note that a Frenchman has observed that a platinum wire is heated with an electric current and then placed in a jar of methane continued glow.  I’m guessing that this curiosity was an early version of the catalytic converter found on most modern cars.  There are notes on telephones and wireless telegraphy and a discussion of the ideal way of storing energy to power motor vehicles, electricity is was thought to have potential and compressed air to be a bad idea.  Electric shock treatment must have been fashionable as some advertisers claimed it was better to be shocked by their apparatus than that of a rival company.  With hindsight X-Rays were not something the citizen scientist should be encouraged to mess with.  The classified ads can be intriguing, there is a suggestion that a vicar had a model gunboat to sell and why would someone expect to exchange an accordion for a lathe?

In the diversity of items advertised, three occur frequently, these are gas engines, dynamos and accumulators.

In 1905, electricity was still a luxury product costing may be 4d – 6d per kwh (roughly 50p in today’s money) and many urban areas did not have a supplier and remote households had to generate their own electricity if they wanted it.  Gas, however was a mature technology, many gas companies had been established between 1820 and 1850 and most urban areas had a gas works.   In some coastal towns, the coal was supplied by brigs from Newcastle running themselves aground on the beach  and being re-floated after their cargo had been hauled away by horse and cart. The cost of gas might be something like 2s 6d and 3s per 1,000 cubic feet, depending on the nature of the gas this would be roughly 10p/kwh today.

At the turn of the century gas was increasingly being used for heating and cooking, but the principal application was lighting. Whilst gas lighting was better than candles, it could make the air in a room foul, the products of combustion being carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and water vaoiur plus anything else the gas company could not get rid of.  Gas mantles required cleaning  and lighting, whilst electric lamps were clean and available at the flick of a switch.  Doctors wrote letters extolling the benefit to health of electric lighting.  It’s not easy to make a like for like comparison with the cost of gas and electric lighting but it seems that electricity was perceived as being 5 – 10 times more expensive.

Fractional horsepower gas engine/dynamo sets provided a source of electricity where a public supply was not available and possibly a means of getting a supply at a lower cost.  At the time of writing, I’m still attempting to identify a property which had such an installation.  At a guess, a common configuration would be to have the machinery in a shed where it was used to charge accumulators which were in turn connected to the lighting circuits in the main house.  Voltages seem to have been in the range 4 – 12 volts and accumulators could be relative large, say more than 50 AH.

After 1900, the public electricity supply expanded rapidly, but in most places this was AC, whilst the use of DC in the home decreased, cars and motorbikes created a new demand and low voltage dynamos were used to charge automotive batteries.  Early radio sets also needed a DC supply.

The magazine has several references to water engines, for owners of landscapes which were suitable for the construction of small dams and there a few mentions of “hot air” engines, I take this to mean “Stirling” engines, but so far no description of the workings of these devices.

Posted in Economics, Electricity, Energy, History, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Learning to garden (20) – The aging dog again

The garden has always been a work in progress, mainly because I don’t know what to do with it or what I want to do with it.  However, a small vegetable plot was evolving and a few meals produced.  then in August 2016, my dog, never an ideal companion in the garden, decided to dig it up.  At the age of 63, I had a tantrum that would have impressed a three year old.  It was late in the year and there was much that could be done and the garden became a mess and this blog ceased.


Marigolds and Dahlias


I’ve never seen the point of raised beds, they just reduce the growing area by at least 50% and in a small garden, that does not leave much room for plants.  However, they do offer the possibility of creating dog proof enclosures.  the garden is on the eastern side of an sub-urban valley and there is a 5 metre drop from the top of the street wall to the top terrace of the garden.  The street side of this wall is a viewing terrace for the parish and my garden.  I came up with the idea of making the top terrace of the garden attractive to walk around and look into from above.  Some rather rough carpentry produced three shaped beds and space for a metre diameter circular greenhouse.  This greenhouse is in my imagination and a cheap plant tent from the local garden centre in reality.



Work in Progress


Having come up with a layout, I was at a loss as to what to plant and it was too late to sow seeds.  What I do enjoy about gardening is growing plants from seed.  There is something too look at each day and a real sense of satisfaction when the flowers come into bloom or you eat the plant for lunch.

Despite plans to study ancient works on gardening, join the RHS and consult web sites, I purchased a couple of packets of seeds from the local DIY store for £1.99 each, one was for French Marigolds and the other for Dahlias.  I planted enough seeds to produce plants to stock one bed.  The result has exceeded expectations,  seed costing £1 has produced a pleasing bed.  It may be in the style of Acacia Avenue, but I now have a sense of direction.

As for the dog, he is happy to poo in the spaces between the beds and so far has not done any serious damage.  My relationship with that dog is complex, we do no stare admiringly at each other and our tastes are divergent, but there is a sense that we appreciate each other’s existence.  He would be out of place in Acacia Avenue.

Posted in Gardening, Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

The price of house coal

The starting point for this post was some old family accounts which extended, with gaps from the 1920s to the 1940s.  This was augmented by some figures found in the online version of Hansard.  Some local history material provided a human dimension to the numbers.

The graphs should be treated with caution as they are random in both time and location.  House coal can be priced in several ways, my family always discussed it in terms of cost per hundredweight (112 pounds or very roughly 50 kg).  In 1835 it became compulsory to sell coal by weight rather than volume, before that there are references to “chaldrons”, this was a volumetric measure which might account for 0.5 – to 1.5 tons.

The economics of coal consumption are complex, at £10/cwt, the energy cost is around 2p/kwh which is lower than for gas or electricity.  However, the “benefit” derived from a kg of coal depends on the efficiency of the device in which it is burnt.  When used in a cooking range, a lot of energy is used just warming up a large lump of iron before the thing is warm enough to boil a kettle for tea.  Early ranges were not insulated, which made them inefficient cooking devices, but a desirable source of warmth in the kitchen, modern solid fuel range cookers are well insulated which minimizes heat loss.  In England, houses were heated with open fires which have a very low efficiency (10 – 20%?) with most of the heat going up the chimney.  From limited research, it seems that the French prefer stoves which use coal more efficiently.

During the 20th century, the overall trend in the “real” price of coal was upwards.  At the end of the 1960s coal began to compete with “North Sea Gas” in the domestic fuel market.  Gas was both cheaper and more convenient than coal and coal’s share of the market started to decline.  By the end of the century, coal had become a “niche” product and costs rose as the economies of scale that had been possible faded away.

The retail price of coal has always been subject to wide variations and fluctuations.  In 1795 it was feared that France would invade England and for a time the price of coal was around 55 shillings per chaldron, this would be more than £50/cwt in today’s money.  Households purchase coal for the heat it produces when burnt, premium grade Welsh Steam Coal might have a calorific value of more than 30 MJ/kg whilst that of lower grade fuel might be half that. Some of the variation in the price shown on the graphs is due to variation in the grade of coal.

Apart from events in the wider economy, the price of coal was determined by who you were and where you were.  A well-off, well managed household would buy several tons for delivery in large loads during the summer when they would benefit from lower prices.  At the other end of the scale, those on low incomes might have had to buy coal by the stone (14 lb) or lesser quantity and paid a high unit price (there is an analogy here with today’s pre-payment meters).   Some coal merchants operated “coal clubs” which allowed fuel costs  to be evenly spread over the year.

Transport was a significant part of the cost of distributing coal from the mines to the consumer, by the late 19th century coal merchants were often clustered around railway goods yards.  The coal merchant was responsible for unloading the trucks, if this was not done within an agreed period, say, three days, the buyer was charged demurrage until the wagon was empty.  In the early part of the century it was not unknown for captains of collier brigs from the Tyne to run their vessels on to the beaches of seaside towns if they thought they could get a better price for their cargo than they would get at a port a few miles down the coast.  If the cargo was discharged at a port, then the buyer would have the cost of transport to the point of use.  There was always a risk that they could be stranded for several days until favourable weather and tide allowed them to re-float.

A wide variety of enterprises were active in the local coal markets, some companies operated across regions, some were local businesses, maybe just a father and son working together with a horse and cart and below them were the barrow boys.  Our family favoured the Co-Op, probably to get the “divi”.

A coalman’s job was hard and dirty, often it was delivered to the consumer in sacks containing one and a quarter hundredweight (roughly 60 kg).  Large houses would have purpose built coal stores and some town houses had coal cellars which extended under the pavement which could be filled through a hole normally covered by an iron cover.  The difficult ones were small terraces where the coal had to be carried through the house to the scullery, a task which had to completed without upsetting the housewife.

Posted in Coal, Conservation, Economics, Energy, History, Sustainability | Leave a comment