Oil powers our society, it is often said, but in truth the single most all-pervasive force in our life is electricity. This message was driven home as I was writing this review: a very local power cut struck my street at around 6pm. We were hopelessly unprepared, with a single dim torch to hand and a few birthday candles. You quickly realise that – apart from the encroaching cold; the thawing freezer and other vital life-support systems; the fact that if the cut were to last a week and become widespread, there would be starvation in the cities – everything we normally do these days needs electricity. The candles were too weak to read by. My iPod would last for a few hours until it needed recharging. We have a gas stove so we cooked a large improvised pasta to keep us warm and went to bed early, warmly wrapped for the long haul, when the house sprang to light again.
Gavin Weightman charts the chaotic, fumbled beginnings that brought us to this point. The principle of electricity generation was discovered by Michael Faraday in 1831. In Britain it took a century for electricity to become a general utility. America and Germany were much quicker off the mark. Not even the First World War could shock Britain into adopting a national electricity supply system.
In 1926, a committee of enquiry pointed out that Tasmania had a higher consumption of electricity per head than Britain, while California had ten times our individual usage. The problem was nationalisation – or rather the lack of it. All the power stations and distribution networks were isolated, either private enterprises or under local authority ownership. In 1926 there were 572 of them, operating 438 power stations.
Surprisingly, it was a Conservative government that broke the deadlock, creating the Central Electricity Board in 1926. The national grid was essentially complete by 1933 – a triumph of infrastructure provision during a depression and a lesson for today. We had been laggards but, when we had to, we moved fast and efficiently, just as when war preparations began in 1936.
So began the pylon era. The giant gantries striding across the country were one of the defining icons of the 1930s, even giving their name to a school of poetry: the Pylon Poets. Stephen Spender had written a poem called "The Pylons" ("those pillars bare like nude giant girls that have no secret") and all wrote about the light, clean, electric age as the brittle backdrop to Auden's "low dishonest decade".
The creation of the national grid was one of the few unalloyed successes in this story, although even here there were many protests about the desecration of the countryside. Nevertheless, even some artists, as well as poets, found them beautiful: the sculptor and typographer Eric Gill wrote to The Times in favour. But thereafter the story is one of lurches from under to excess capacity, responding to the war, the crises of austerity, boom and bust. No sooner was a power station such as Battersea or Bankside (now Tate Modern) built than it was deemed to be the wrong kind, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.
The electricity industry has been in a muddle for most of its existence, with perhaps a benign plateau in the 1960s when the country was 100 per cent electrified and the nationalised industrial structure seemed stable. Since then a series of blows – the oil crisis of the 1970s; the retreat from nuclear power following the accident at Three Mile Island in the US in 1978; the destruction of the coal industry by Mrs Thatcher; the squandering of North Sea gas used to generate electricity in the "Dash for Gas"; the need to decarbonise electricity generation – have left the industry in deep uncertainty. Apart from the problems of global warming, the imminent retirement of the old nuclear reactors is leading to a projected energy shortfall.
In December, Chris Huhne, the Energy and Climate Secretary, announced new plans to plug this gap and reduce carbon emissions. The government projects that a £110 billion investment in electricity generation is needed over the next decade, twice that of the previous decade. The plan is to achieve this with incentives for greener power, using subsidies and a floor price for carbon. The head of EDF, the French energy company which hopes to build four new UK nuclear power stations, reacted positively. We must hope he stays that way: while we dream of an all-renewable, carbon-free electricity, the reality is going to be years of stopgap nuclear power.
Peter Forbes's 'Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage' is published by Yale