A beach at sunset with the sea coming in and electricity pylons dotted into the distance

History of electricity in Britain

Here you will find out more about National Grid's history, including how our network came together to form the first grid system in the world. 

1920s – 1940s: Bigger supplies, better methods

In post-First World War Britain it was a bleak time. The electricity industry needed cheaper and more reliable energy supplies, and new methods to achieve this.


Lord Weir chaired a committee that proposed the development of the Central Electricity Board (CEB), which would connect the most efficient power stations in Britain. This link would be established with a 'national gridiron'.

In 1926, these proposals were accepted and became recognised laws. 


The National Grid was born. There were seven grid areas established across Britain with control rooms in several major locations:

  • Newcastle

  • Leeds

  • Manchester

  • Birmingham

  • Bristol

  • London

  • Glasgow


The National Grid was constructed within the expected time frame and on budget. 


One evening, a group of control room engineers combined all seven grid locations for the first time (without permission), and the grid system worked. 

Moving forwards, CEB employees were given air raid training and shelters were built to protect the plant and equipment during the war. 

1940s – 1960s: Damage, recovery and nationalisation

During the post-First World War years, power stations were built less frequently; coal became a rationed source of fuel; electricity usage was on the rise. 

From 1937 to 1945, barracks, factories and airfields were positioned outside of major towns. The grid made plans to expand and by 1942 there were 500 miles of new transmission lines in Britain. 

During this period, the grid's National Control was moved from its normal Thameside HQ to a disused tube station that became known at the 'The Hole'. 


West Ham substation was severely damaged, but it was re-built in just nineteen days. In the months after this, air raids also knocked out Fulham power station and did severe damage to Battersea power station. 

1946 - 47

There were heavy snowfalls this winter. Coal shipments were disrupted and the country was effected by power cuts, some of which lasted up to 12 hours. 

Many power stations were running low on energy supplies and it was estimated that they could only operate for another two weeks. 


The electricity industry was nationalised. 

To preserve energy supplies during wartime, electricity was rationed. Domestic consumers' usage was limited to the hours of 9am to 12pm, and 2pm to 4pm. 


National Grid initiated talks with Électricité de France, a France-based power company, about constructing a cross-Channel power link. 


The grid couldn't supply to future demands so a twelve-year project was launched to establish a 275kV 'supergrid'. 42-metre high pylons and 4,000 miles of transmission lines were installed as part of this project. 


The Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) was established 'to keep the lights on'.

By the late 1950s, the CEGB had moved from a twelve-division structure to one that occupied five regions. This allowed for more efficient running. 

1960s – 1980s: Paving the way for a new supergrid

From 1956 through to the early 1960s, the new grid structure was economically beneficial. There was more electricity being produced and bigger power stations were erected closer to the grid's resources. 


The Transmission Construction Project group was established to monitor the construction of a new 400kV supergrid. 


Nuclear reactors in Essex and Gloucestershire were turned on for the first time. Britain's energy resources became a mixture of coal, oil and nuclear fuel. 


The winter this year was brutal. There were disruptions across the entire grid and line gangs struggled to make repairs in such bad conditions. 


Work began on the first 150 miles of the new 400kV supergrid. By 1966, there were 1,300 miles of new lines built leaving only 200 miles to go. 

In the early 1970s, Regional Engineering Departments were established to help stations manage their operations. During this time, Transmission Sections merged to form larger Districts. Generation and transmission belonged within the remit of the new Director of Production. 


North London's 400kV transmission meant that electricity transmission to the capital was more efficient. 


Construction started on a pumped storage station in Snowdonia, which was capable of producing 1,300MW of power.

Elsewhere, Hinkley Point B nuclear power station became an active site. 


Demand for electricity saw a dramatic drop. 

1980s – 2000: The introduction of the Electricity Act


The Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) established its first wind turbine plant in Camarthen Bay, South Wales. Its output was 200kW, which was enough to power a small village. 


The miners' strike came to an end. The CEBG estimated that the costs incurred from the strike were in the region of £2,000 million. 


The IFA interconnector between England and France was commissioned. To date, this remains the biggest HVDC submarine line in the world. 


The Electricity Act was approved by parliament. This paved the way for privatisation of the electricity industry.


The privatisation of the electricity industry took place. National Grid was formed as a company and its shares were owned by twelve Regional Electricity Companies. 


The 'dash for gas' trend began. The grid had to accommodate combined cycle gas turbine power systems connecting to the electricity system. 


National Grid was listed on the London Stock Exchange and shares were traded publicly. 


The seven control centres across Britain were replaced by the Electricity National Control Centre (ENCC) in Wokingham, which was the base of the UK operating system. 


The solar eclipse this year resulted in the largest electricity surge on record for the middle of summer. 

2000 – present: New cables on an Olympic scale


A second Yorkshire line was commissioned. The 400kV line started in Lackenby, Teeside and ran to Shipton, North Yorkshire. This development strengthened electricity transmission between England and Scotland. 


National Grid became the single name for the principle business. 


After a three-year build programme, transmission cables that run beneath the Olympic site were commissioned. The cables were positioned inside a tunnel that was four metres in diameter and fifteen to thirty metres below ground from West Ham to Hackney.


National Grid looked to raise £3.2 billion in rights issue. 


Looking forward

From April 2019, our electricity businesses will exist as an Electricity System Operator (ESO) and Electricity Transmission (ET)

These changes are the result of changes in the energy industry as a whole. It is an exciting time that sees new incentives and new performance measures in place for us. By separating, we believe that we can better fulfil the demands of the energy market and play a significant role in industry transformation. 

Lots of wind turbines offshore

National Grid Electricity System Operator (ESO)

National Grid Electricity System Operator (ESO) is looking to make significant contributions to the energy market. In times of change, the ESO believes it can be influential and innovative in these on-going transformations. 

Visit the National Grid ESO website

National Grid Electricity Transmission (ET) 

National Grid Electricity Transmission (ET) is the owner of the electricity transmission network in England and Wales. 

Visit the National Grid ET website