Power, Politics and Pragmatism: The British National Grid

Power, Politics and Pragmatism: The British National Grid


Here, below London, 32km of new tunnels are
nearly finished. But these aren’t for people: they’re for power. Cables carrying 400,000 volts will run through
here, supporting the city as it keeps growing and keeps demanding more and more electricity. This project cost a billion pounds, all to keep the lights on. So how did we get to this? Back in the 1920s, electricity was generated
by hundreds of small companies in towns and cities across the country. They were all different and mostly incompatible: London alone had 24 voltages and 10 frequencies. So if you moved to the next street over, you might have to replace all your light bulbs. If you had any light bulbs, that is: the cost of electricity was out of reach of
nearly everyone. Now the answer might have been to do what
other countries in Europe were doing: set up and enforce standards, regulate prices, maybe even nationalise the power companies. And bring the price down for everyone — people and business. Good plan in theory, but the trouble was that the Prime Minister
at the time was Stanley Baldwin, and he led the Conservative party. Politically, he couldn’t just assume control of private
corporations! That was socialist. That was something that the Other Side did. So the solution was a very clever and very
British compromise: the National Gridiron, later just National
Grid. The Central Electricity Board, backed up by the government and run privately, would construct and own the central infrastructure. It would build a network of transmission lines
sweeping across the country. The Grid would reduce the risk for the private
generating companies and let them reach a much, much, larger market. If they wanted to connect and reach everyone, they had to meet the Grid’s standards for
frequency, for voltage, and for reliability. The greatest story I found while I was researching
this is that originally, there were six separate grid areas spread all around the country, all run individually. It was judged too risky by their managers to actually connect them all into one National
Grid. But it was theoretically possible. Sometimes two or maybe even three of those
grid areas were connected to help out if one power station somewhere
went down. So on the night of 29th October, 1937, without
any permission, the engineers in the control rooms quietly
decided to connect the whole country together for
an hour or two and see what would happen. And it worked. And a year later, even their managers agreed: it was the only way to make sure the lights stayed on everywhere. And so while the level of regulation, and the level of privatisation, has changed over the years — as it has in pretty much every country in
the world — and while the technology has developed to
the point that instead of laying transmission lines, we are now in billion-pound tunnelling projects
60m under London, that mostly-private grid is what we still
have today. It’s listed on the London Stock Exchange. If history had turned out differently, perhaps this tunnel would have been a government
operation: but even if it was, we’d have still needed this to keep the lights
on. Thank you very much to the National Grid and all the folks who’ve helped bring me down
to the Power Tunnels, along with Geoff from Londonist, who’s done a video about these tunnels themselves and all the infrastructure around me. Go check that out on his channel! [Translating these subtitles? Add your name here!]

100 thoughts on “Power, Politics and Pragmatism: The British National Grid

  1. Did they run some older parts of the grid or some communication cables through the Tube tunnels? Their walls seem so full of wires, it would be kinda much just to run the Underground.

  2. Here in Mexico we had a huge problem with electric companies.

    Basically, two companies operated: CFE (Comisión Federal de Electricidad | Federal Comission of Electricity) and Luz y Fuerza del Centro (Light and Force of the Center), both private companies, but owned by the state. CFE operated in all the country except in Mexico City, where LyF was the guy. But LyF made a huge fraud and then goverment dissolved it and put CFE in place. now CFE is the only electricity delivering company here.

  3. the power industry has definitely gone down hill since the CEGB, private companies tend to care more about money the electricity!

  4. IDK if you will ever get the opportunity, but it would be cool to see you do a video about the channel tunnel with you walking in a service tunnel.

  5. Brilliant. I'm fascinated by man-made subterranean structures, and this hits the spot. Now, are you aware of the Underground station that was built, and never connected to the surface? I'm referring to North End [or Bull And Bush], on Hampstead Heath. See if you can have a look at that.

  6. I have to say that Power, Politics and Pragmatism sounds like what writers use for every working title for each episode of House of Cards.

  7. why is it so big, surely they could decrease the diameter to decrease the cost, its not like theres going to be giants roaming around the tunnel

  8. Surely projects like this could (should?) share their infrastructure with other utilities – shouldnt there be wifi/telecoms and water? gas and elec running through those tunnels?

  9. I just found your page today. Love it! Very informative and entertaining. Totally subscribing! Keep up the great work and effort 🙂

  10. I probably understood that wrong, but it seems to me that the government took money from the taxpayer to build a billion pound tunnel that private companies then use to sell electricity to the people. Somehow that does not sound fair to me.

  11. Why dig such huge tunnels just for power cables? If you need them to be accessible to people and machines, why nut just make them a little bigger and run the subway (tube or whatever) through them? I mean, you're going to have to dig the tunnel anyway why not use them for as much as you can?

  12. Not much info into this video.
    You can just google this.
    I expected more and far more details, maybe even some technical informtion.

  13. Last year in South Africa it was impressive to have more than 48 hours of uninterrupted power. In the winter when we needed the heaters.

  14. I don't really believe the essence for such a massive tunnel 60 meters underground for 6 cables… Great job by some managers wasting billions.

  15. That seems extraordinarily cheap. Here in New Zealand we are spending more than half that much to build about 3 kms of train tunnel.

  16. Given that electricity moves at the speed of light (at most), and 50Hz needs to keep being synced, how does that work for long distance electricity transport? They'd be in antiphase & collide, right?

  17. Tom, This is where the real issues of distributed generation comes today. Besides the fact you can't control these types of generation and we have no viable way of story it on a large scale. There is another issue – en-mass wind farms and PV generation does not connect to the 275/400kV network like conventional plants do. Ridiculously large scale investment is needed on the lower voltage levels to make it work. And this is where the smartgrid idea comes into play because in this theory – the 400kV network becomes redundant. Please do a video on smartgrids, talk to one of the local RECs about it and see what you find.

  18. I'm curious, did they consider co-opting any of the now-disused Royal Mail tunnels for those power tunnel networks?

  19. You see, I could get a job and become a productive member of the United States work force…. or I could watch a video about the productivity of work forces across the pond 😀

  20. To me this British compromise sounds way better than it was done elsewhere, especially decision by then prime minister to play by rules and still find way to standardise grid

  21. So essentially the government managed to create a national service without impeding on the freedoms of the market? Genius

  22. I did wonder how central London had virtually no power lines above ground! Also, loving the teeny little 9kg dry powder extinguisher in that shot, if 400kv starts a fire down there you'd struggle to get anywhere near it, let alone put it out! That said, it is for little fires which could melt the 400kv cables, but still a funny thought!

  23. National Grid became so national, it became international (At least between the US and UK) the eastern US has National Grid, that was previously called Niagara Mohawk

  24. Well Tom,
    Philippines is just like old UK in electricity
    In Metro Manila and nearby province there is MERALCO and if you move into the next group of islands, depending on the province is another electric company
    But, just like how private rail company in UK and tracks amd some station is operated by Network Rail
    Electric Infrastructure in the country is operated by the government

  25. I can only imagine the risk assessment that took place for your visit.

    High Vis Trench Coat – In case of underground rain and subterranean cars
    Safety Gloves – Protection from any dangerous gestures
    Safety Glasses – Eye protection from stray dust particles
    Hard Hat – In case of sudden & dangerous head flailing.
    Emergency Respirator – Protection from sneak methane attack.
    Safety Boots – Prevention of stubbed toes.

    Where is Jeremy Clarkson when you need him?

  26. The main electric grids in the US formed independently, through voluntary interconnection and standardization. But that didn't happen until about 1950. The government later stepped in to regulate it, but initially the free market was just doing its thing. The Brits just needed to wait a bit longer, and the same probably would have happened there.

  27. How exactly are they producing so much power? Like how much water is there to fall over for hydro, or how much coal is there to burn? Still amazes me how much power there is.

  28. Private is almost always cheaper and efficient as long as there are agreed standards. Sometimes those are self standardized and sometimes look governments have to assist but bureaucracies can’t do what private companies can do

  29. "If you moved to the next street over, you might have to replace all your lightbulbs"
    Like move your entire house? Or you take the lightbulbs with you when you move?

  30. 1937: people connect grid without warning or permission.
    1938: everyone decided it's the only way to keep the lights on everywhere, all the time.
    1939: it's blackout time.

  31. Public spirited cooperation.
    If you stayed in a bed and breakfast in the 50's, you did not get a lightbulb. You had to pay a deposit on one or supply your own. There was still austerity, rationing, national scarcity and petty pilfering.

    BTW the country went mad when sweets came off the ration in about 1949. The country was ate dry in three months and they had to go back on rationing for the next few years.

  32. This is a good one. But honestly, they are all good. Thanks, Tom and the guys in the background who don't get enough credit. You really do a service to the world.

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